White House Holds Silicon Valley Summit to Address Extremist Social Media


On Friday, Obama Administration officials held a summit with Silicon Valley executives to discuss the use of social media platforms by groups such as the Islamic State.

According to VentureBeat, government representatives at the meeting included White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, presidential counter-terrorism adviser Lisa Monaco, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, FBI Director James Comey, National Intelligence Director James Clapper and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers.

Representatives of companies such as Twitter, Apple, Facebook, and Google were in attendance, although VentureBeat noted their delegations consisted of “high-ranking executives, but not their chief executive officers.”

A summit agenda obtained by The Intercept said that encrypted communications were “very much on the agenda,” contrary to early suggestions that the meeting would focus on other topics.

“To avoid law enforcement and the intelligence community detecting their activities, terrorists are using encrypted forms of communications at various stages of attack plotting and execution,” said the White House document.  “We expect terrorists will continue to use technology to mobilize, facilitate, and operationalize attacks, including using encrypted communications where law enforcement cannot obtain the content of the communication even with court authorization.”

According to The Intercept, the summit agenda even promised to offer classified briefings to the attending Silicon Valley executives, to show them why unbreakable encryption is such a dangerous weapon in terrorist hands.

There was also discussion of how groups like ISIS use social media for propaganda and recruiting purposes, and how their messages might be countered.

VentureBeat concisely sums up the uneasy position social-media companies find themselves in as public concern about terrorists attacks mounts, nothing that while companies have become “increasingly cooperative” in “taking down content viewed as capable of inciting violence or recruiting militants,” they are also nervous about appearing “too cozy with government investigators.”

This could become a competitiveness issue, as companies willing to compromise user privacy with government agencies could find themselves losing users to those who promise secure and private communications.

Also, it seems clear that many Internet pioneers and visionaries have a sincere belief that users should be able to rely on secure communications; Apple CEO Tim Cook has spoken eloquently on the topic on many occasions, for example.

According to Inverse, the White House team flew out to Silicon Valley for the meeting, rather than bringing industry representatives to Washington, and Cook was scheduled to be in attendance.

However, the threat of terrorism enhanced by social media is clear enough, such as the Islamic State’s disturbingly effective online operation. The summit agenda expressed keen government interest in developing methods to measure radicalization and the “resonance” of various messages deployed by terrorist groups, so that counter-messages could be “shaped and targeted” more effectively.

It sounds like the White House wants to design some kind of anti-extremist super-bot that can generate a flood of messages to counter the online siren song of jihad:

While it is unclear whether radicalization is measureable or could be measured, such a measurement would be extremely useful to help shape and target counter-messaging and efforts focused on countering violent extremism.

This type of approach requires consideration of First Amendment protections and privacy and civil liberties concerns, additional front-end research on specific drivers of radicalization and themes among violent extremist populations, careful design of intervention tools, dedicated technical expertise, and the ability to iteratively improve the tools based on experience in deploying them.

Industry certainly has a lot of expertise in measuring resonance in order to see how effective and broad a messaging campaign reaches an audience. A partnership to determine if resonance can be measured for both ISIL and counter-ISIL content in order to guide and improve and more effectively counter the ISIL narrative could be beneficial.

In other words, they want social-media gurus to turn the sales expertise that made companies like Facebook into multi-billion-dollar juggernauts to the task of selling moderation to potential ISIS recruits.  Inverse notes that previous efforts along these lines have “largely fallen flat, most notably the State Department’s ‘Think Again Turn Away’ campaign.”

Propaganda is still propaganda, even when it’s meant to drown out the message of terrorists, and Inverse notes that ordering tech firms to “blast political messages out to all their users” could raise free-speech issues as troubling as censorship and surveillance.

Another point worth noting: this will be the first major formal encounter between Silicon Valley and government officials since controversial cyber-security legislation was stealthily inserted into the year-end omnibus spending bill.  The playing field has shifted, and some of the industry representatives at the summit won’t be happy about it, especially since it was done with dead-of-night parliamentary tricks.  On the other hand, nothing breaks down free-market resistance to government demands like the threat of getting clobbered by poorly-written regulations.