Amid reports from the FBI and other federal agencies about the threat of domestic terrorism, Big Tech is boosting its efforts to identify and remove extremist content from social media. While it seems appropriate that these companies would do their part to ensure that terrorists cannot use their platforms to spread their propaganda and plan their operations, this could result in a slippery slope that might not be favorable to everyday Americans.
Big Tech Organization Expands Focus
A prominent counterterrorism organization created by a coalition of American tech companies is expanding the categories of radical content included in a database shared by these organizations. The group — which includes Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, Google, and others — is taking this step to tamp down on supposed white supremacists and far-right militias.
Reuters explained that the organization, called the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), has typically focused on content created by radical Islamic terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, the Islamic State (ISIS), and the Taliban. But at this juncture, the group will be adding white supremacists and other right-wing organizations.
“Over the next few months, the group will add attacker manifestos — often shared by sympathizers after white supremacist violence — and other publications and links flagged by U.N. initiative Tech Against Terrorism. It will use lists from intelligence-sharing group Five Eyes, adding URLs and PDFs from more groups, including the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters and neo-Nazis.”
The companies share “hashes,” described by Reuters as “unique numerical representations of original pieces of content” that they removed from their platforms. Through this method, these companies will root out the material on their sites.
During an interview with Reuters, GIFCT’s Executive Director Nicholas Rasmussen said: “Anyone looking at the terrorism or extremism landscape has to appreciate that there are other parts … that are demanding attention right now.”
The GIFCT was created in 2017 amid widespread criticism against tech companies that they were not doing enough to prevent the spread of extremist material on their platforms. The condemnation intensified after a series of terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. But some human and digital rights groups have expressed concerns over the group’s censorship practices, according to Reuters. “Over-achievement in this takes you in the direction of violating someone’s rights on the internet to engage in free expression,” Rasmussen said.
Emma Llanso, who heads the Free Expression at the Center for Democracy & Technology, indicated that this new move on the part of the GIFCT further underscores the need for transparency. In a statement, she insisted: “This expansion of the GIFCT hash database only intensifies the need for GIFCT to improve the transparency and accountability of these content-blocking resources.”
Could This Go to an Ugly Place?
Taking action against extremism – regardless of the source – is a laudable objective. Terrorist groups have been using online platforms to plan their operations and disseminate their propaganda for years. Indeed, it has become one of their primary methods for radicalizing people across the world.
Still, it is worth noting that the censor-happy folks at companies like Facebook, Twitter, and others could easily use this initiative to target right-leaning individuals or organizations that are not involved in terrorism. Indeed, it is not difficult to imagine that the censorship brigade would falsely label certain voices as extreme just to silence them. One only needs to look at how the Southern Poverty Law Center operates to see how ugly this could get.