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Breaking the cycle of radicalisation by backing words with deeds

Euro-View: Sir Ivor Roberts on radicalisation

Sir Ivor Roberts

Despite its shrinking territorial footprint as the battle for Mosul reaches its climax, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) appears to have lost none of its ability to terrorise, nor its capacity to manipulate modern communication channels, the Internet and social media platforms, nor to radicalise and inspire acts of violence. The recent call by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi to his foot soldiers to “wreak havoc in [unbelievers’] land and make their blood flow as rivers” is all of a piece with their overall propaganda strategy.

A French law enforcement investigation revealed recently that seemingly unrelated events — the murder of a French police couple in their home, the execution of a French priest during Mass, and the attempt to detonate a car bomb near Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral — were all directed by a single ISIS recruiter operating from Syria or Iraq: 29-year-old French citizen Rachid Kassim.

These latest soldiers of the caliphate and – potentially most worrying to European national security professional legions – their brethren yet undiscovered have grown up on ISIS’s brand of toxic non-stop propaganda. The latter has been targeted, highly sophisticated, endlessly echoed and deftly broadcast cost-free since 2014.

That the Internet and social media platforms play vitally important roles in radicalisation there is simply no longer any doubt. And yet no one other than the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) has had the courage to face it directly.

CEP is the non-profit organisation begun in 2014 by former world leaders and diplomats to combat extremism by pressuring their financial and material support networks and countering the narrative of extremist groups. It has been at the epicentre of the debate over online extremism, and has relentlessly insisted that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others do more to combat extremists. As a result, CEP has seen these worldwide social media behemoths change their terms of service to outlaw support for terror or the advocacy of violence.

But while these changes to their terms of service are welcome, they need to be complemented by enforcement. Social media platforms have been better at stating their policies than enforcing them. While they regularly remove content of all kinds, including images, video and audio messaging, that violates their terms of service, the process currently is slow, user dependent and therefore random.

Given the sheer volume of the problem, CEP partnered with Dartmouth College Computer Science Professor, Dr. Hany Farid, to develop a technology known as eGLYPH. This helps Internet and social-media companies enforce their terms of service quickly and consistently in order to make social media a less welcoming environment for extremists. Announced on June 17 and ready to deploy, eGLYPH is based on technology developed by Dr. Farid almost a decade ago to identify and remove images of child pornography online. The difference is that eGLYPH can detect video and audio files as well as images.

It works this way: a person identifies an image, video or audio recording for removal. Then the algorithm extracts a distinct digital signature from this content. The signature is then used to find duplicate uploads across the Internet. When matches are found, they are reported to the web hosting company. Humans then determine if the content violates terms of service and should be removed.

Were Internet and social media companies to adopt the technology, the incentive to produce and distribute these inflammatory types of images, videos and incitement to violence would be drastically and immediately reduced. Voices of religious tolerance and moderation would have a greater chance to grow and break through the extremist cacophony that dominates today.

And yes, there can at times be grey areas. But social media companies internally debate terms of service violation decisions every day. CEP intends to begin by eliminating the “worst of the worst” content that is clearly prohibited and has helped spread terror around the globe.

The irredeemably sad and solemn first anniversary of the Paris attacks is now behind us. How can European security professionals and politicians claim to be doing all they can to protect the public and prevent a repeat of the Paris tragedy without taking the crucial step of immediately advocating the adoption of this technology by Internet and social media companies operating on their soil?

     Sir Ivor Roberts KCMG, is a member of the European advisory board to the Counter Extremism Project. A Former British ambassador to Yugoslavia, Ireland and Italy, he is currently president of Trinity College at the University of Oxford. He can be reached at media@counterextremism.com.

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