Modern field guide to security and privacy

Can tech community battle Islamic State online without breaking the Web?

At the South By Southwest Interactive festival this week, privacy advocates and technologists looked for ways to knock Islamic State militants offline without compromising free speech.

Ali Hashisho/Reuters
An Islamic State flag hung on electric wires in January over a street in Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon.

As governments struggle to blunt the Islamic State's digital recruitment efforts, they are increasingly reaching out to technologists, social media firms, and advertisers to find creative ways to thwart the group's message of radical Islam. 

Appearing in Austin at the South by Southwest Interactive festival, President Obama met last Friday met with groups of technologists and filmmakers to discuss ideas for battling the IS (also referred to as ISIS or ISIL) message online, which includes thousands of Twitter accounts and sophisticated social media campaigns. 

"It's not enough if we're going to defeat ISIL just to take out their leadership or to control certain territories, if, in the virtual world, they are consistently reaching kids here in the United States or elsewhere in the world and recruiting them and twisting their minds to do terrible things," Mr. Obama said in a speech at SXSW. "We’ve got to be able to penetrate that."

In one of the most recent examples of the militants' apparent success of using the Web to radicalize followers, the FBI said Thursday it discovered pro-IS material on the laptop of a Muslim student who stabbed four people last November. Campus police shot and killed Faisal Mohammad, an American-born University of California, Merced, freshman, after he went on a stabbing rampage on campus. 

Now, as the US government and European officials focus on what social media companies can do to block extremist content, many digital advocates, tech experts, and civil liberty groups worry that an aggressive campaign against IS could also endanger free speech.

"Placing private actors in the role of government and the role of arbiter of what speech is acceptable is a really dangerous game," said Rebecca MacKinnon, director of the Ranking Digital Rights project at New America Foundation, a nonpartisan Washington think-tank, who spoke on a panel at SXSW about what the tech community can do block extremist content on the Web.

Ms. MacKinnon said problems can arise if companies overcompensate and mistakenly censoring content from journalists and civil society members. "There’s no accountability," she said.

In January, a delegation of White House officials traveled to Silicon Valley to meet with tech executives about ways to fight IS online. Soon after, Twitter announced that it had taken down 125,000 accounts promoting extremism, and a Google representative told UK parliamentarians that the Mountain View, Calif., company could tinker with its search algorithm to block IS searches. Britain has also established a police referral unit that allows law enforcement officials to flag extremist social media content for removal.

But law enforcement and government officials can only go so far in censoring extremist content online, and even their best efforts cannot contain the powerful social media machine that IS has built over the years, say experts. 

Their videos present a "passionate narrative," said Shahed Amanullah, a former State Department official, who spoke alongside MacKinnon at SXSW. "Even when you watch the Arabic versions, you feel an energy out of it, it's a really primal thing."

Mr. Amanullah now runs Affinis Labs, a Northern Virginia-based startup incubator that has proposed to fight IS by creating forums to empower Muslims to counter radical messages. In February, Affinis cohosted the "No2H8" hackathon with Facebook and Google to that challenged participants to design social media campaigns that could counter online hate speech – including the IS message. 

"You can do an algorithm to fight child pornography, you can’t do an algorithm for ideology," said Amanullah. "It's silly to think that we can throw a technological solution at this problem."

Affinis has helped launch a handful of startups aimed at countering extremism. One of them is called QuickFiqh, a smartphone app that produces short videos about the Quran from mainstream Islamic scholars. Another project that emerged from a recent Affinis hackathon, dubbed Pentor, is designed to match young Muslims with mentors.

In many ways, said Amanullah, the most lasting and effective way to fight IS online is if other Muslims can build platforms to combat extremism.

"The government is one node among millions," he said, "not some super node."

In fact, Amanullah said, governments should resist endorsing grassroots efforts to counter IS because that support could undermine the credibility of those voices. "If you think it's such a great counter-message, get your filthy hands off of it."


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