Britain has large audience for online jihadist propaganda, report says
Isis extremist content attracts more clicks in Britain than in any other European country, thinktank says, and internet firms are failing to curb it
By Alan Travis
Online jihadist propaganda attracts more clicks in Britain than in any other European country and the main internet companies are failing to curb it, a centre-right thinktank has said.
Policy Exchange analysts have said that Islamic State is still producing, at a conservative estimate, about 100 items of new content each week, including execution videos and bomb-making instructions, despite big military defeats in Iraq and Syria.
The report, the NewNetwar, says the jihadist online “ecosystem”, the core of which is rooted in the Telegram app, has tentacles across hundreds of different domains. It is resilient and reaches an audience of, at minimum, tens of thousands, including large numbers of users in the UK.
The report is published ahead of a meeting between Theresa May and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, to discuss possible new measures to tackle online extremism, including fines for web companies that fail to take down extremist content.
It includes a foreword by Gen David Petraeus, the former US commander in Iraq and CIA director, who says that the attempted tube bombing at Parsons Green last Friday, using a device that could be built from instructions found online, underscored once again the ever-present nature of the threat.
“Jihadists have shown particular facility in exploiting ungoverned or even inadequately governed spaces in the Islamic world,” said Petraeus. “This new Policy Exchange report shows they are also exploiting the vast, largely ungoverned spaces in cyberspace, demonstrating increasing technical expertise, sophistication in media production, and agility in the face of various efforts to limit its access.
“It is clear that our counter-extremism efforts and other initiatives to combat extremism online have, until now, been inadequate. There is no doubting the urgency of this matter. The status quo clearly is unacceptable.”
The Policy Exchange report says that Isis online output, contrary to previous claims, is not falling but has remained consistent over the past three years. The jihadist are increasingly relying on “swarmcast” technology – an interconnected network that constantly reconfigures itself and is highly resilient to disruption.
“An average week will see over 100 new core articles, videos and newspapers produced by Isis and disseminated across a vast ecosystem of platforms, file-sharing services, websites and social media,” says the report.
“Isis have adapted to shifts in technology and now use Telegram as their core communication platform for talking to sympathisers – even as platforms like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook remain vital for missionary activity,” the analysts warn.
They say their in-depth study found that Britain was the fifth most frequent location from which content was accessed after Turkey, the US, Saudi Arabia and Iraq – and registered the largest number of clicks in Europe.
On one measure, the number of clicks on a shortlink such as goo.gl or bit.ly, which gives a rough view of which country a link was clicked from, shows that between mid-February and early May 2017, Turkey had the most clicks overall, with 10,810. That was followed by the US, with 10,388; Saudi Arabia, 10,239; Iraq, 8,138; the UK, 6,107; and Egypt, 5,410. More than 40% of the clicks on Isis material were referred through Twitter.
The paper suggests that the government needs to step up pressure on the internet companies, and should consider empowering the forthcoming commission on extremism to oversee the removal of extremist content. It also endorses proposals to set up an independent regulator with the power to levy fines on the web companies, and new legislation to make it a criminal offence to possess and consume extremist material.
The lead author of the report, Martyn Frampton, said governments and security services had been playing a “fruitless game of ‘whack-a-mole’”, which focused on removing individual pieces of content.
“The evidence suggests that we are not winning the war against online extremism and we need to consider options for change.
“If the internet companies won’t do what their customers want and take more responsibility for removing this content, then government must take action through additional regulation and legislation,” he said.
In June, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube announced a global internet forum to tackle terrorism. They said the collaboration would focus on technological solutions including AI machine learning techniques, research and partnerships with governments and civic groups.
In response to the report Twitter said terrorist content has no place on the platform.
Figures published by the site show 636,248 accounts were suspended in total between August 2015 and December 2016 for the promotion of terrorism.
A Google spokeswoman said: “Violent extremism is a complex problem and addressing it is a critical challenge for us all. We are committed to being part of the solution and we are doing more every day to tackle these issues.
“We are making significant progress through machine learning technology, partnerships with experts and collaboration with other companies through the Global Internet Forum – and we know there is more to be done.”
Yvette Cooper, the chair of the Commons home affairs committee, responded: “People are rightly fed up at how easy it is to spread dangerous extremism and vile illegal material online. Whether it’s hate preachers on YouTube, guides to bomb-making on Google, details of antisemitic white supremacist rallies on Twitter or streaming of extremist violence on Facebook Live, it’s clear internet companies should be doing far more to intercept and remove extremist and illegal content. If they fail to do so they should face strong fines and penalties. We’ve had years of government-industry summits and press releases – it’s time we saw practical action.”