Cyber jihad expert: Social media companies are unlikely to stem online propaganda

‘Twitter, YouTube doing the minimum to deal with jihadi content online,’ says Steven Stalinsky

December 9, 2015 01:13
2 minute read.
Computer hacking

Computer hacking (illustrative). (photo credit: REUTERS)


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In the wake of the San Bernardino terror attacks, the debate over what to do about cyber jihad – and encrypted communications – has come to the fore, but a leading voice in getting terrorists off social networks does not envision much progress on the issue.

“This game by Twitter and YouTube – that is, doing the minimum to deal with the problem of jihadi content online – has been going on for years,” Steven Stalinsky, the executive director of Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), who charts terrorist use of social networks, told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.

Some discussion of the issue began immediately following last month’s Paris attacks, but the pressure to make progress is mounting, he said.

MEMRI has reiterated to the heads of the leading social media companies, and particularly to Twitter, that they “explain to the public what their policies are and what they are doing to deal with it – and why,” said Stalinsky.

MEMRI itself has been working on this issue for more than a decade, ever since jihadis took their first steps online in carrying out cyber jihad. The organization has a project called the cyber jihad lab that is devoted to collaborating with legislatures and tech companies to tackle this issue.

US President Barack Obama said in a speech on Sunday, that he “will urge high tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice.”

On the same day, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, speaking at the Brookings Institution, called on technology companies to be involved in “disrupting” Islamic State.

A senior administration official told The New York Times in a report on Monday that since the latest attacks “there has been a reintensified or reinvigorated engagement” between government officials and tech companies.

The MEMRI executive director commented that while these are all positive developments, they should have come much sooner.

“It is too soon to tell whether these efforts are sincere – especially those of president Obama, who last year brought together tech company leaders to launch a counter-radicalization effort that was supposed to tackle the issue, but it accomplished little as it was more for show.”

Stalinsky recalls that in the immediate aftermath of the beheading of American journalist James Foley, and the dissemination of the video via US-based social media, these tech companies pledged to take action – with Twitter’s CEO at the time notably declaring that there would be no more such content on his platform.

“But after an initial effort, and after the media turned its attention elsewhere, Twitter went back to being the main social media used by jihadis – and when jihadi accounts are removed, they are immediately relaunched,” he said.

Stalinsky said Facebook has been extremely successful in stopping jihadis from using its services, but that YouTube has done considerably less well in this task.

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