Sir Julian King, UK Commissioner for Security Union, reflects on the challenges of tackling online propoganda as a means of radicalisation.
Tackling terrorists’ use of the internet is central to our work to defeat terrorism. It’s a real challenge as we experienced in 2016 when witnessed time and again how terrorists have exploited the internet to pursue and promote their objectives. Propaganda videos, instructions on how to conduct terror attacks and calls for attacks in the West using “all available means” have all featured heavily online. The aim of this material is to radicalise, recruit, encourage and direct terrorist activity and instil fear amongst our citizens.
Da’esh is often considered the most prolific user of the internet, although their output in recent months has decreased. Nevertheless, we should expect them to seek to maintain their online presence as they attempt to compensate for their physical decline on the ground. In this vein, and for as long as their propaganda is able to circulate and multiply online, the internet will continue to provide a lifeline to Da’esh, long after it is rolled back on the ground.
We should also not ignore those other terrorist groups who operate online such as Al Qaeda, Jabhat Fateh-al Sham, Boko Haram, as well as a worrying rise of violent right-wing extremists. They learn from each other and adapt their online behaviour accordingly. Whilst their ideologies differ, they are united in their intent to sow division and radicalise, preying on those who feel disadvantaged and marginalised within society.
Tackling radicalisation remains at the forefront of our counter terrorism response. A long-term, concerted and collaborative effort is required, and to be successful it needs to include all actors: internet service providers, governments, law enforcement authorities as well as civil society organisations. The EU Internet Forum set up in 2015 by the Commission strives to do just that, bringing the relevant stakeholders together to discuss the challenges and agree a collaborative way forward. Academic researchers also keep Forum Members up to speed as to how terrorist behaviour is evolving online.
Over the course of the last year, substantial progress has been made in reducing accessibility to terrorist content online. The Internet Referral Unit at Europol is doing an excellent job in scanning for terrorist material in the public domain and then referring it to the relevant platform, where it is assessed against the company’s terms and conditions. Over 90%s of pages referred are taken down. We also welcome the so called “database of hashes” initiative developed by some of the large companies to prevent material which has been removed from one site popping back up on another . We now need more companies to get involved and deepen that cooperation further.
Despite these efforts, there is still much more that we need to do to protect online users from harmful content – particularly the young and the vulnerable. For example, we need to see what can be done to enable online users to be better able to distinguish fact from propaganda.
More generally, we need to do more to prevent and deter others from venturing down the route which leads to violent extremism. It is civil society partners rather than governments who are best placed to deliver such messages – not least because disaffection with the ‘system’ seems to be a recurring theme amongst those who have become radicalised. But those who do have the ‘credible voice’, often lack the resources or the technical know-how to be able to deliver effective campaigns online. That is why we have a programme of work underway to empower civil society partners to do just that, and we have committed €10 million to support this effort.
There has never been a more critical time for us to focus our joint efforts and resources on tackling this online phenomenon. The EU Internet Forum has demonstrated that a private-public voluntary approach, based on human rights, shared values, and a joint determination to protect EU online users, can work. The scale of this challenge is indeed immense and we must ensure that our online efforts go hand-in-hand with our offline efforts to counter violent extremism and prevent further atrocities.