Twitter, Facebook and Google have been accused by MPs of “consciously failing” to stop jihadists from using their platforms to promote terrorism, making the sites the “lifeblood of ISIS”.
In a report, MPs sitting on the Home Affairs Select Committee said that the online networks have become “the vehicle of choice in spreading propaganda and the recruiting platforms for terrorism”.
It has recommended that the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (CTIRU) be upgraded to a state-of-the-art, round-the-clock operational hub, seeking out jihadist activity, blocking it, and reporting it to other intelligence organisations.
Between mid-2015 and February 2016, Twitter suspended 125,000 accounts globally which were linked to terrorist activity, while Google removed over 14 million videos globally portraying jihadist activities. However, the MPs have said that the number, while seemingly large, is in fact a “mere drop in the ocean.”
They note: “These companies have teams of only a few hundred employees to monitor networks of billions of accounts and Twitter does not even proactively report extremist content to law enforcement agencies. If they continue to fail to tackle this issue and allow their platforms to become the ‘Wild West’ of the internet, it will erode their reputations.”
Twitter, along with YouTube, came under fire last week when it emerged that the companies had refused requests by counter-terrorism police to remove jihadi propagandist materials posted by hate preacher Anjem Choudary, even after he was charged with swearing allegiance to Islamic State. His Twitter account remained live for days after news of his conviction and likely sentence to ten years in jail for the offence, although it has now been removed by the platform.
Keith Vaz MP, who chairs the select committee, said: “We are engaged in a war for hearts and minds in the fight against terrorism. The modern front line is the internet. Its forums, message boards and social media platforms are the lifeblood of Daesh [Islamic State] and other terrorist groups for their recruitment and financing and the spread of ideology.”
“Even when someone is convicted, such as Anjem Choudary, 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.”
He blamed the companies for failing to use some of their “billion dollar incomes,” to address the problem, accusing them of “consciously failing to tackle this threat and passing the buck by hiding behind their supranational legal status, despite knowing that their sites are being used by the instigators of terror.”
His committee want to see government introduce legislation which would force the companies to comply with the Metropolitan police’s beefed up operational hub.
The hub “must include operatives from the Home Office, the security services, the Police, internet companies and others,” Vaz insisted, adding: “The Government must develop an effective counter-narrative to the slick and effective propaganda machine being run by Daesh.
“We should utilise the brightest talent of the world’s creative industries to counter terrorist propaganda with even more sophisticated anti-radicalising material. In the face of this new threat, we need a terrestrial star wars.”
The report is all the more alarming as it appears to confirm a suspected double standard held by social media platforms, who have long been accused of censoring right wing voices while giving free rein to jihadists to promote their messages of hate.
Israel supporters have long pointed to the double standard on Facebook over how the company ignores violent pro-Palestinian pages while barring pro-Israeli pages. The bias was proved by an Israeli NGO which set up near identical pages in support of Israel and Palestine. While the pro-Israel page was removed immediately, the pro-Palestine page was found not to be in violation of Facebook’s community standards.
Then in May, Breitbart London reported on the announcement by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft that they had entered into a partnership with the European Commission order to crack down on what the Commission classes as “illegal hate speech” while “criminaliz[ing]” perpetrators and “promoting independent counter-narratives” that the European Union favours.
It made clear within the announcement that it considered hate speech to be “racism and xenophobia,” confirming what many to the right of the political spectrum had already suspected: that the social media platforms were attempting to skew public debate around sensitive issues such as Islamism.
Simon Milner, the director of policy at Facebook UK, said: “As I made clear in my evidence session, terrorists and the support of terrorist activity are not allowed on Facebook and we deal swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content.
“In the rare instances that we identify accounts or material as terrorist, we’ll also look for and remove relevant associated accounts and content. Online extremism can only be tackled with a strong partnership between policymakers, civil society, academia and companies.”
A spokesman for YouTube said: “We remove content that incites violence, terminate accounts run by terrorist organisations and respond to legal requests to remove content that breaks UK law. We’ll continue to work with government and law enforcement authorities to explore what more can be done to tackle radicalisation.”