August 25, 2016 Abdul Haqq

Turning a Blind Eye: Tacit approval of online extremism

The previous government report on particular social media firms’ failure to combat extremist propaganda should come as no surprise.[1] Although the Home Affairs Select Committee is to be acknowledged for highlighting this very serious issue, it is something that was addressed as long ago as 2011. Unfortunately – and as is often the case – small grassroots entities face almost insurmountable ‘David and Goliath’ moments when challenging larger corporate organisations like Google.

During Google’s initial Summit Against Violent Extremism, held in Dublin in 2011, I addressed Eric Schmidt – the CEO – regarding the nihilistic videos frequently uploaded to promote gang violence:

‘…Google also came in for criticism at the summit yesterday for failing to take some violent videos off its Youtube website.

Dr Abdul Haqq Baker, a former chairman of the Brixton mosque in London, told more than 200 delegates attending the summit that Youtube videos were being used by gangs in south London to organise “gang hits.”’[2]

Schmidt’s response was revealing inasmuch as he acknowledged his team’s lack of requisite grassroots knowledge to identify and address the challenges involved in removing particular content:

‘He said the team of Google reviewers, who scrutinise video content after it is uploaded on to the website, often did not have the appropriate local knowledge to remove dangerous content.

Mr. Schmidt said Google had regional teams to review videos and inappropriate material was typically flagged by users and removed within minutes of going up on the website.’[3]

In response to the Home Affairs Committee’s report, Facebook, Twitter and Google have stated that each of them take their role in combating extremism very seriously.[4] However, further examination will reveal the actual extent to which they have seriously considered the problem of online extremism, and whether their action matches their rhetoric. Referring again to STREET’s encounter and subsequent engagement with Eric Schmidt and members of his team will shed some light on how they dealt with this issue in 2011.

Following the Q&A session with Mr. Schmidt, members of his management team approached me. Victoria Grand, who is currently Senior Director of Policy and Strategy at Google, introduced herself and suggested we have further discussions around the areas I had highlighted with her boss. A two-pronged approach was agreed:

  1. STREET provide some YouTube links to particular videos of concern and;
  2. STREET deliver a training workshop to some of Google’s UK and US based staff to highlight its Deconstruct methodology and approach toward tackling violent and extremist online propaganda.[5]

 

Correlation between gang, gun and knife crime and violent extremism

Following the summit, the STREET team highlighted immediate areas of concern, referring to possible correlations between gang violence and extremism:

‘The trend for extremist protagonists and recruiters is to target this particular audience, among whom many are new converts, due to their propensity for violence, criminality and lack of progressive opportunities for decent employment. Simply refer to Anwar Awlaki’s December 2010 edition of the online magazine ‘Inspire’ to see his fatwa that the West is an abode of war (darul harb) in which, according to extremist interpretations, murder, robbery and general criminality (including kidnapping) are permissible against non-Muslims. This type of propaganda appealed to many extremists, like Zacarius Moussoui, Richard Reid (the Shoe Bomber), the 7/7 bombers etc. If you look at the profiles of many of these individuals you will note that they were involved in differing levels of criminality and / or violence prior to their acts or attempted acts of terrorism.’[6]

Recommendations were given on how to improve monitoring and countering extremist propaganda:

‘…As we discussed at the Summit, there are ways of monitoring and tackling the array of videos posted on You Tube. Organisations with staff that possess expertise, experience and familiarity with the various forms of extremism, i.e. far right, religious extremism, animal rights extremism etc. as well as the language and terminology can become part [of] regional hubs that focus on these particular areas. Their roles could range from flagging up such videos to posting effective counter narratives that deconstruct their extreme messages. The STREET team already addresses extremist propaganda on the net (not only You Tube) via its Deconstruct programme using its templates, one of which is attached for reference. The current detail of these templates could simply be read over relevant extremist videos as a means of breaking them down, challenging their rhetoric and juxtaposing these with the correct context and understanding. Members of the STREET team usually identify such extremist footage and then develop the appropriate response.’[7]

Twenty links were also provided with the above-mentioned email and specific concerns about the violence that emanated as a result of the particular videos uploaded, (including one preceding the murder of Zac Olumegbon outside his school in south London on 2nd July 2010.[8])

 

Corporate terror? Absence of accountability – unless there is a risk of reputational or financial damage

Due to the confidentiality agreement between STREET and Google surrounding some of the observations highlighted, explicit details cannot be disclosed at this juncture; however, suffice it to mention that measures were taken to remove some videos. What can be revealed however is Google’s continued failure or more alarmingly, reluctance to remove propaganda of known extremists due to particular footage not providing clear enough justifications for such decisive action. This was witnessed during the same Dublin summit in 2011 when a discussion ensued regarding Anwar Al Awlaki’s videos. In the absence of unequivocal extremist rhetoric in any given video, Google policy prevented the removal of more (apparently) benign footage.

As recently as 2014, Google appear to have continued its non-committal approach toward effectively tackling extremist propaganda and instances similar to it – hate speech – based on what increasingly appears to be seriously flawed policies. The conclusive advice provided on this occasion confirms this:

 ‘…At the Google Summit in Dublin in 2011, in a session with your team we viewed and discussed some Anwar Awlaki videos. Despite our reservations about keeping these up, your team explained why they would remain – they didn’t violate your company’s policies/ethics.  The subsequent extremist / terrorist attacks where he was considered a radicalising effect became public knowledge and I believe you then took some action. Please explain whether this is an actual policy – wait for something to happen that is indirectly or directly attributed to something up on YouTube before taking decisive action?

 I suggest you review aspects of your policy relating to Islamic terminology that is considered dangerous among Muslim and non Muslim academics and practitioners in the same way members of your team asked me to contribute to providing language and slang related to gangs as this is a serious matter.’[9]

 

Haunted from beyond the grave…and prison cells

Subsequent to Anwar Al Awlaki’s death on 30th September 2011, his online presence continues to violently radicalise others:

‘“…the drone strike that killed [Awlaki] did not silence him.” After his death, Awlaki’s Internet publications were said to have inspired the perpetrators of the Fort Hood shooting, the Boston Marathon bombings and the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris.’[10]

Keith Vaz,  former Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, was correct to emphasise concerns about the Internet being the ‘modern front line’ of the war for hearts and minds.[11] His comments regarding huge corporations like Google and their ‘conscious failure’ to adequately counter the extremist threat by ‘passing the buck’ were even more pertinent as were his observations that:

‘Even when someone is convicted, such as Anjem Choudhary, their videos and hateful speeches continue to influence people through these websites. The companies’ failure to tackle this threat has left some parts of the internet ungoverned, unregulated and lawless.’[12]

 

Conclusion

Unfortunately, Vaz stopped short at demanding conclusive answers and reflecting upon stark realities such as:

  1. Whether these corporate giants will now heed the latest warning from a senior statutory body and act more decisively to remove Choudhary’s videos, or will they continue to ignore them like they did Awlaki?
  2. Was it not from among the same statutory bodies that the existing environment was created for these giants to trample over international byelaws and regulations, exploiting their supranational status?

The age-old adage: ‘in the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king’ is relevant in this context. For far too long, Google, Facebook, Twitter and their other corporate associates have stretched boundaries, facilitating the darker and more porous elements of the Internet while being aware of our collective ignorance – and various governments’ complicity. It is high time for these corporate and statutory entities to alter their current course of [in]action and consider more comprehensive, far reaching measures to defeat the very dangerous monsters they have recklessly helped to cultivate online.

 

[1] Commons Select Committee: Internet giants “consciously failing” to tackle extremism on the web: https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/home-affairs-committee/news-parliament-2015/radicalisation-report-published-16-17/ 25th August 2016

[2] J. Smythe: ‘State censorship of internet to increase, Google chief warns,’ The Irish Times, 28 June 2011

[3] Ibid

[4] Domini Casciani: Social media giants ‘failing’ on extremism – MPs: BBC News, 25th August 2016: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-37180159

[5] Email communications between Victoria Grand, myself and members of our respective Google and STREET teams on 4th, 15th July 2011 & 16th August – 16th October 2011

[6] Email to Victoria Grand, Senior Director of Policy and Strategy at Google dated 4th July 2011.

[7] Ibid

[8] M. Blake: ‘Teenager stabbed to death at school gates,’ Mirror News, 3rd July 2010, http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/top-stories/2010/07/03/zac-15-dies-in-his-teacher-s-arms-after-a-knife-ambush- 115875-22378556/

[9] Email to Victoria Grand, Senior Director of Policy and Strategy at Google dated 4th November 2014.

[10] National Security: Drone Strike That Killed Awlaki ‘Did Not Silence Him,’ Journalist Says: 14th Sepetmber 2015: http://www.npr.org/2015/09/14/440215976/journalist-says-the-drone-strike-that-killed-awlaki-did-not-silence-him

[11] Commons Select Committee: Internet giants “consciously failing” to tackle extremism on the web: https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/home-affairs-committee/news-parliament-2015/radicalisation-report-published-16-17/  25th August 2016

[12] Ibid

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