IN May this year, 17 countries, the European Commission, and eight major tech companies convened in Paris to sign a Call to Action – a statement of intent aimed at countering the omnipresence of violent content online.
The Call has two sections: the first outlines governments’ commitment to countering the dissemination of online violent extremism, while the second outlines that of tech companies. Neither make reference to the role of the platform users, though.
As expressed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, it signifies the first – nevertheless meaningful – step towards achieving better online security.
While one must commend the effort that’s been made, one must also acknowledge that the Call fails to address the main drivers of online violent extremism.
One root cause is the increasingly poisonous politico-socio-economic environment pushed by the rejection of historicism and facts. Under the current system, social media facilitates the proliferation of unacademic historical revisionism.
In the modern era, we have moved away from basing assessments on facts and rational reasonings to embrace ‘feelings’. One recalls a famed interview with Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representative, in which he argued that even though empirical evidence shows a decline in violent crimes, people feel unsafe, leading him to add that feelings are more important than facts.
If governments and tech companies are serious about countering the drivers of violent extremism, three things must first occur.
Firstly, we must engage in a better understanding of our history and societal development. There has been – as is still the case today – too much focus on the clash between civilisations and not enough on the interdependence amongst them.
Western civilisation was largely built on the works of other great civilisations. For example, it was the Indus civilisation that used the concept of zero well before the ancient Greeks. Until it was properly introduced, the ‘western’ world’s ability to engage in algebra was limited.
It took the great Persian polymath Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi who built on the works of several Greek mathematicians to advance algebra and algorithms – the latter also being the root of computer science.
The rise of the Italian city-states in the twelfth century and the rise in trade with the East brought the works of al-Khwarizmi and others – al-Kindī, Avicenna, and al-Ghazali, for example – to Western Europe. From this arose even more innovation from the likes of Leonardo Pisano, who ended the dominance of Roman numerals in Western Europe.
This is only one example that highlights the fact that interactions between cultures and people are what enable societal advancements.
In our online counterterrorism strategies, therefore, we must accept the unavoidable interconnectedness amongst different societies and cultures, and use this to our advantage.
Second, the Call doesn’t deal with the need for personal responsibility. Notably, it was possible for the Christchurch shooter to allegedly livestream the carnage because no one had reported it to begin with. In fact, the first report only came in 12 minutes after the live broadcast ended and 29 minutes after it had started.
Moreover, an 8chan user posted a link to the file with a video of the attack, making it virtually impossible to wipe the horrific video from the Internet with individuals being able to share it across various platforms. One suspects that the video is trending across far-right websites and platforms, many of which use encryption technology to avoid detection.
We must remember that if individuals want to engage in or find extremist materials online, it’s relatively easy for them to do so. No matter what the tech industry does, there will always be ways for committed extremists to take advantage of the technologies available to them.
Third, there is a need to engage in an open, honest discussion about the relationship of the State with online content. When the US president, for example, tweets and retweets comments made by racists without impunity, this limits the government’s ability to counter online violent extremism – especially when other leaders don’t challenge him
It is very convenient for governments to assert that extremist content must be removed or blocked, but by not addressing the ecosystem that feeds the narrative, they fail to deal with the root problem.
In the Call, there are references to the need for industry standards but not to those that must exist in politics. This is worsened by that fact that there are serious doubts as to whether the state should be entrusted with such censorship power.
So many within the state system seem to have a poor grasp of facts and little willingness to engage in open discussions and critical assessments. Instead, criticisms of the government are portrayed as unpatriotic or as being against the interest of the nation.
Last year, for example, news.com.au was forced to remove a story entitled ‘Islamic State terror guide encourages luring victims via Gumtree, eBay’. This was because the piece included extracts from Rumiyah, which the Classification Board considered as indirect instructions to commit acts of terrorism. Despite the Australian Press Council deciding it to have been published in the public interest, the article remains removed from the site.
One suspects that the recent ruling in the New South Wales Supreme Court could make things worse. Under the new ruling, news organisations are responsible for pre-moderating comments on Facebook should they wish to avoid possibly being sued for defamation. This is likely to further narrow the space for open discourse, as companies will seek to limit their liabilities.
If we truly want to address violent extremism in society, we must be more forthright in our assessment and usage of the past, as well as of the limitations of our current systems. Romanticising and idealising the past only leads to unrealistic expectations that feed extremist narratives.
This piece was first published at Policy Forum, Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis and opinion.