Facebook's algorithm has automatically created over 100 pages for US-designated terrorist groups like Islamic State and Al-Quaeda, according to a new report by the Tech Transparency Project (TTP).
TTP is a research initiative of non-profit watchdog organization Campaign for Accountability that, according to the TTP website, "uses research, litigation and aggressive communications to expose misconduct and malfeasance in public life." TTP began as the Google Transparency Project in 2016 and has expanded to cover several major tech companies.
The Capital Research Center, another non-profit watchdog founded during the Reagan administration, described TTP as left-leaning in its politics although the group itself does not claim to identify with a political bent.
The report highlighted five key points:
- Facebook created 108 pages for Islamic State in addition to dozens of other pages for terrorist groups including Al-Qaeda
- These terrorist group pages were generated automatically as users listed the groups in their profiles or "checked in" to terrorist organizations.
- Facebook generated these pages despite its policy banning Islamic State and Al-Qaeda and alleging that its algorithm is trained to detect them.
- Some of these automatically generated pages have been living on Facebook for years, racking up likes and posts with terrorist propaganda and imagery.
- The company could potentially be held responsible for these pages as Facebook not just hosting but actually creating them.
According to the TTP report, this phenomenon was born of a particular quirk in the platform. If a user lists an employer, school or location in their profile or checks into a place, and that employer, school or place does not have an existing page, Facebook automatically creates one.
Facebook and terror activity are old acquaintances
Facebook has a checkered past in terms of hosting and inadvertently promoting extremist pages. In his 2010 article "Terror on Facebook, Twitter and Youtube" published in The Brown Journal of World Affairs, University of Haifa professor Gabriel Weimann wrote:
"There are numerous Facebook groups declaring support for paramilitary and nationalist groups that the US government has designated as terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas, the Turkish Revolutionary People's Liberation Army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The majority of these groups have open pages and anyone interested can read the information, look at the discussion boards, click on links to propaganda videos and join the group."
Weimann also cited Australian counter-terrorism expert Anthony Bergin, who said that terrorists use social media websites as recruitment tools "the same way a pedophile might look at those sites to potentially groom would-be victims." In other words, terrorist organizations could take advantage of sites like Facebook and Twitter to target young, impressionable people and convince them to join a terror organization.
Even more than recruitment, social media sites are used to give followers specific instructions on carrying out terror attacks. Weimann explained in a 2015 article in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs that "Youtube videos, as well as Facebook postings, are being used to teach the use of explosives, direct followers to websites with instructional material, promote hacking techniques and share encryption programs."
Attempts to rectify the situation
The National Whistleblower Center (NWC), a Washington DC-based nonpartisan non-profit organization, published a report in 2019 making similar claims to the recent TTP report supported by data and research provided by a Facebook whistleblower.
The NWC reported that the Congressional Subcommittee on Intelligence and Counterterrorism chaired by Congressman Max Rose (D-NY) has addressed this issue on the House floor several times over the last several years. Unfortunately, they were able to make little progress aside from sending "several letters to Facebook demanding answers and solutions to the ongoing problem of terror content" and eliciting statements of support from other US lawmakers.
These longstanding auto-generated Facebook pages, the TTP report concludes, raise serious concerns about the platform's ability to detect and shut down terrorist activity. Especially because, according to Facebook, their detection programs are trained specifically to find ISIS and Al-Qaeda.