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Study: YouTube Failed to Stop Jihadis from Uploading 1,348 Propaganda Videos

A YouTube sign is shown across the street from the company's offices in San Bruno, Calif., Tuesday, April 3, 2018. A woman opened fire at YouTube headquarters Tuesday, setting off a panic among employees and wounding several people before fatally shooting herself, police and witnesses said. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

An estimated 278 potential jihadi-linked accounts uploaded 1,348 Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) videos on YouTube between March and June this year, the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) revealed in a study published shortly after the research period.

CEP made the discoveries about ISIS videos on YouTube as it produced a research paper to better understand how the organization uses the video-sharing platform to its advantage.

The vast majority (83 percent) of terrorists who committed or were charged with ISIS-linked crimes in the United States between March 2014 and August 2016 were exposed to ISIS propaganda videos, CEP noted in its July 24 study titled The Eglyph Web Crawler: ISIS Content on YouTube.

ISIS, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and their affiliates have long been known t0 use online tools like social media — YouTube, Twitter, Facebook — to disseminate propaganda, conduct recruiting operations, spread Islamic hardliner messages, among other nefarious activities.

YouTube claims it is fighting to stop these groups from using their platform, but the practice continues. Some U.S. officials have admitted America has failed to combat ISIS’s propaganda online efforts.

Using the technology to keep nefarious actors off the video-sharing outlet, YouTube “appears to have made improvements in locating ISIS content, [but] it does not excuse the fact that these videos are still allowed to be uploaded and accrue in some cases hundreds or thousands of views,” CEP reports.

To study them, it allows the ISIS jihadis to post the videos and users to access them for hours, potentially fueling terrorist activity with the excuse that by doing so, it will be able to stop the next one.

CEP notes ISIS is posting videos on YouTube using technology that Youtube can block if the people charged with monitoring are trained, noting:

If video hashes were checked against a hash database of known terrorist content at the point of upload, it should prevent that video from being posted to YouTube. Instead, CEP found that 91% of the narrow set of 1,348 videos had been uploaded more than once during the three-month period…Clearly, it remains possible to reupload known ISIS content despite YouTube’s highly publicized promises to be proactive in removing content and use of machine learning and hashing technology.

The fact that known terrorist videos continued to be uploaded and reuploaded to the platform calls into question YouTube’s true intentions behind its heavily promoted efforts to combat online extremism. YouTube still has a long way to go in the fight against terrorist propaganda on their platforms.

Google’s YouTube has been a vital tool to tracking terror and jihadi terrorists, who are increasingly becoming adept at using the social media tool to recruit, spread propaganda, order hits, and plan and train for deadly attacks.

CEP explained:

YouTube, Google’s video streaming platform, has been an important site for posting and sharing ISIS’s propaganda since the group’s inception [around 2014]. Even as ISIS’s message shifted from building a utopia in the Middle East to inspiring individuals to commit attacks in the West, YouTube has remained a central component of ISIS’s online media strategy. ISIS, like most Americans, is drawn to YouTube because it is the dominant online streaming platform. A March 2018 Pew Research Center report found that 73% of American adults use YouTube, with 94% of individuals between the ages of 18 and 24 using the site.

Moreover, there is a clear link between extremist videos and individuals who have sought to support or join ISIS. A joint study from the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Threats and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Counter-Terrorism Policy Center found that 83% of Americans who committed or were charged with ISIS-related crimes between March 2014 and August 2016 watched ISIS propaganda videos. Moreover, there is a clear link between extremist videos and individuals who have sought to support or join ISIS.

The Counter Extremism Project explicitly noted that its study discovered that “YouTube’s claims of proactive content removal efforts” are lackluster, explaining:

CEP’s findings call into question YouTube’s claims of proactive content removal efforts. The fact that 91% of extremist videos had been re-uploaded to YouTube at least once casts doubt on YouTube’s stated efforts to prevent the upload or removal of known terrorist material. YouTube’s human flagging efforts are currently inadequate to consistently locate and remove known terrorist content.

Although the U.S-led coalition has annihilated ISIS’s territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria, its anti-propaganda efforts, at the very least, need improvements, CEP concluded, “The fact that 24% of content remained on YouTube for more than two hours [after it was posted allowing a user to record it] indicates that YouTube is failing to prepare, train, and educate its content moderators about known ISIS videos.”

CEP acknowledged that, given the volume of the videos posted (documented in just three months), YouTube is important to ISIS, something that perhaps they can use against the killers.

“The overall total of 163,391 views within a three-month period on this limited set of 1,348 uploaded videos shows that YouTube is still an important site for ISIS’s propaganda efforts,” CEP reported. “It is unlikely that Google/YouTube is deploying hashing technology appropriately given that known ISIS videos continue to be reuploaded to the platform.”

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