ISIS leads extremist stampede to small social media platforms after campaigns for online bans

Small sites like justpaste.it are making strides against extremist content but others refused to take action

Extremist users are moving away from traditional social media platforms. Reuters
Extremist users are moving away from traditional social media platforms. Reuters

As the larger social media platforms step up efforts to purge extremist activity on their sites, banned users targeted for hate speech and recruitment are regrouping on smaller, largely unregulated platforms, say experts.

Speakers at the Terrorism and Social Media Conference at Swansea University this week stressed that more research was needed into smaller platforms, but academics were constrained by lack of collaboration with computer scientists who are able to design software to effectively and quickly analyse thousands of posts and fear of reprisals from violent, tech-savvy members of extremist groups.

Dr Krisztina Huszti-Orban, professor of law and research fellow at the Human Rights Centre of the University of Minnesota, says larger platforms are struggling to keep up with changing legislation in the myriad national jurisdictions they operate in.

“It is frequently impossible for them to comply with all these different regulations in their operations,” she said.

Policy makers and tech companies are asking: If larger platforms are having issues keeping on top of extremism on their platforms while respecting the right to free speech, just how are smaller ones supposed to cope?

As different generations are drawn to different apps, so are extremist groups. Far-right sympathisers and members pushed off mainstream platforms have lately been drawn to Gab, 8Chan and 4Chan.

Research from Tech Against Terrorism covering 45,000 URLs since 2014 found half of the top 50 platforms used by ISIS are small and micro platforms such as Telegram, kik and Ask.fm. These sites are popular because they allow anonymous sharing of content and many can host secret channels or groups which only those vetted can be included in.

Telegram, as well as being a place content is shared, can often act as a tool to share content or messaging to a wider audience outside of the platform, said Mohammed Al Darwish. “Fanboys” take direction from a Telegram group or channel, with links to share and big-ticket accounts to reply to on Twitter.

“They will be posting on these groups saying 'let's prepare for our Twitter ...offensive or invasion’,” he said.

“These Fanboys need to get in touch with the administrator of this telegram channel. By this way, then they will be given access to a ready activated, ready to use Twitter account with passwords.”

Amy-Louise Watkin, who analysed the migration of far-right group Britain First to Gab following being banned from Facebook, said that although the group’s following online has dwindled severely since the move (from 1.8 million followers on Facebook to 11,000 on Gab), the general theme of moving to less censored platforms is a worrying one.

“We need to be mindful of the migration to platforms that are less willing to censor,” she said, “resulting in the emergence of different harmful images or more extreme images or images targeting groups that they perhaps weren't doing so explicitly before.”

“We need to find out why these [smaller] platforms are not removing this content. Is it because of their values or is it because they have a lack of expertise and resources? “

Gab, launched in 2016 as an alternative to Twitter, hit the headlines when the Tree of Life synagogue shooter posted on the site just before he stormed in, killing 11. He had been an active user of the platform before his final message.

However, some smaller sites are working against extremism on their platforms. Tech Against Terror cites an example of good practice in its work with JustPaste.it, a website which became a hub for ISIS users to share content like videos, images and the group’s magazine anonymously.

JustPaste.it is a website run by one man, meaning keeping up with the influx of violent and extremist content being shared through it can seem a sisyphean task. However, help from the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, a coalition formed by Facebook, Google, Twitter and Microsoft, has helped Mr Zurawek to remove much of the most dangerous content using hash-sharing.

Bigger companies that are part of GIFCT collate and share a database of terrorist content, which smaller members of the group are welcome, but not obligated to use. The database currently has over 80,000 visually-distinct images and 8,000 images.

However, other forums like 8chan and Gab have resisted calls to remove content and ban users.

Shutting down these sites altogether could also prove problematic, Alex Krasodomski-Jones, director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos said.

“Trying to knock out fringe sites will also create a never-ending game of whack-a-mole,” he wrote in Time Magazine in May. “8chan itself was set up as a “free-speech-friendly” alternative to 4chan, which itself grew after Reddit banned several controversial sections.”

Updated: June 27, 2019 09:08 PM

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