Reclaiming Technology for the Future
This post is adapted from a speech delivered at the DLD ‘Next Next’ Conference in Munich on 17th January 2016.
We are gathered here to talk about the future and we in the technology industry are hard-wired to believe that new ideas and technologies to change the world for the better. But today there are some dark clouds on the horizon — challenges and threats to our worldview and way of life that demand a strong response.
Here in Munich on New Year’s Eve authorities stopped celebrations and closed down the central railway station in response to intelligence that terrorists were planning to detonate suicide bombs in passenger terminals. In Brussels, police arrested suspects allegedly planning attacks leading to the cancellation of all public celebrations. And Paris — still under a state of emergency since the terror attacks on the 13th of November — scaled back celebrations and deployed 11,000 troops to protect revellers on the streets.
And at home in the UK, another grotesque propaganda video appeared online depicting the execution of five innocent men, while the masked murderer speaking with a British accent made threats against the UK with a four year old boy by his side.
With more deadly attacks this past week in Burkina Faso, Pakistan, Cameroon, Istanbul and Jakarta, 2016 has had an ominous start indeed — But there’s nothing inevitable about what happens next. There are things that we can do. The future is there to be shaped. And it’s in the hands of every one of us.
What links all these events together is the threat from terrorist and extremist groups like Daesh or the so-called Islamic State. That threat is both physical and psychological. On the one hand, Daesh presents a very real physical danger to the safety of our citizens. But terrorism isn’t only about the threat to life. Terrorists aim to undermine our very way of life.
So in the physical world we respond, as we must. Governments act. The police and security services do their work to uncover plots, marginalise the forces of extremism in communities and to keep people safe from harm. We have seen similar threats and faced them down before. In fact, seven potentially deadly attacks were stopped in the UK in the last year alone.
But there is a new dynamic to the threat in this digital age that demands a new response. In free and democratic societies, even the worst bigots are entitled to their opinions. But today, the Internet gives them a platform to take their hateful messages and violent provocations to millions and — often — to do so anonymously, without fear of reprisal.
The very idea of the Internet — that great force for good designed to bring people together and to advance understanding — is being undermined by them. It’s becoming an echo chamber of hate, fear mongering and intolerance. And groups like Daesh are masters of their craft.
They have been quick to understand the power of the Web and to recognise its ability to give them reach and impact that was previously impossible. They exploit its scale to reach directly into the lives and minds of millions of people in their communities and the privacy of their homes.
While air strikes are degrading their positions in Iraq and Syria, Daesh are fighting a second war for the hearts and minds of the next generation, spreading a warped world-view. They understand their audience, their grievances and how to exploit them and typically prey on the young, marginalised and vulnerable. Often still in school some are persuaded to leave their families to pursue an apocalyptic dream or to take action that threatens safety and security at home.
The generation most at risk are the first generation to grow up more technologically literate than their parents and teachers, who live their lives almost constantly connected to digital devices. This leaves them open and susceptible to influences online where they are not monitored or supervised. Open to opinions in an uncontested space.
The perpetrators of this online counter-insurgency are often from the same peer group - digital natives, social media experts and coders attracted by the group’s perverted ideology. They understand the language of propaganda — and impressionable youths are their target consumer. Their narrative is powerful, straightforward and simple: you are one of us, irrespective of where you come from. Join us and claim your place in history.
Producing Hollywood style recruitment films that glorify violence and use game quality CGI to add excitement and interest — their propaganda romanticises a life that bears no resemblance to the hell that is the reality on the ground. Let’s pause for a moment to view just one minute of a video they released in November 2015.
As you see, their messages are professionally produced. Today Daesh produce material in over 20 languages and with 36 different official media houses most of which were former Iraqi and Syrian TV stations abandoned in the conflict and they are using these facilities to great advantage.
This “central marketing arm” creates a steady stream of videos and propaganda materials, all of which are clearly approved and sanctioned by a central command. And there is a concerted effort to ensure that all branding is consistent, using the same taglines, messages, music and of course symbols such as the Daesh flag.
They understand the concept of the marketing funnel — starting with mass communications that grab the world’s attention then disseminating that message on social platforms using highly-targeted techniques for specific audiences luring vulnerable people in.
With a sophisticated strategy and a ready army of online volunteers willing to put plans into action, maximise their reach using expert social media marketing tactics and automated technology like bots to gain fake followers and give the impression that they are stronger than they are — that their messages of hate and intolerance have more supporters than they do.
Unlike in the physical world where National Governments can take clear and firm actions to keep people safe; there are no such obvious solutions available in the virtual world. There are no borders or boundaries on social platforms and groups like Daesh know that only too well. They are running a very modern and effective global brand marketing campaign.
But they have resilience as well. Daesh and other groups operate a dispersed network of accounts that constantly reconfigure in response to take-downs and account suspensions. They use swarmcasting to allow groups of radical sympathizers to rapidly and automatically respond and reorganise their communications to ensure a near persistent presence of their messages on social media platforms.
JM Berger from the Brookings Institution in the ISIS Twitter Census reported that an average of 200,000 Daesh-supporting tweets are posted every day. One of Daesh’s horrific murder videos has been reported viewed 150,000 times within 48 hours of its release. And with each one of those video views another seed of hatred, division and intolerance is sown, not least by extreme right wing groups who seize on this material for their own political objectives.
Knowing all of this, we can’t sit by in silent witness. As British philosopher Edmund Burke once said all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.
It’s time to respond — on an entirely new level — with a cohesive, committed and coordinated response. To reclaim the platforms, products and applications we love and use every day from those who exploit freedom of expression and openness to incite violence and push dogma and repression.
While Daesh and others seek to undermine the very ideals and values that the Internet was established to advance, we must reinforce its capacity to be the answer to hatred and intolerance, rather than the vehicle for it.
If governments continue to approach this fight alone as “nation states”, each country effectively re-invents the same strategies and tries to attack the enemy within their territory when in fact your products and platforms reach across the boundaries of all nations. The good news is that you have the expertise that’s needed to address this challenge: the marketers, the data scientists, the developers, and the understanding of machine learning. And it’s the right thing to do. Because when the Internet stops being seen as an undisputed force for good, the business models that rely on it can be called into question and brands can be irreparably damaged.
I realize this is not something we want to focus on as we ponder a bright future but from what I see everyday in my capacity as the UK’s Minister for Internet Safety, we honestly can’t avoid it. There are voices out there who try reduce the problem of online radicalisation to an extreme edge case and thus implying that any action is an over-reaction. If only that were true. And that mentality is dangerous as it ignores the reality and the scale and complexity of the challenge we face.
Yes, the sharp end of the problem - that point where people move from radical sympathizer to action - involves just a small number of people and is rightly the domain of law enforcement agencies and governments. But radicalisation is a journey that starts with one connection, often in plain view. We need to stop the message that fosters hatred and incites violence at source before their toxic arguments takes hold and more vulnerable people are drawn in.
The argument has been made that closing out extremists in the open web will drive them to dark or encrypted places. I don’t think it’s a question of either/or. For the more advanced and dangerous conversations, I suspect this is true already. But long before people leave open platforms for private conversations, they discover this vile material in the open web and this is where we can have the most impact - to stop more people from being exposed in the first place.
Facebook recently commissioned a study by UK think tank Demos that concluded not enough is being done to promote counter-speech. It suggested that governments should support civil society to develop counter-speech programmes and give them a platform and a greater share of voice.
We in the British Government couldn’t agree more and are already doing a huge amount. We are bringing communication experts and civil society groups together to develop and run targeted and more effective counter campaigns. We have committed to a significant expansion of this programme through the British Government’s new counter-extremism strategy. But we can’t do it alone. We need industry to match that commitment.
And the tech community has always come together in times of need. Right now in Paris a special Hackathon is underway. Sponsored by the Mayor of Paris and the Police, hundreds of developers are working through the weekend on five challenges ranging from how to prevent radicalisation in communities, stop the dissemination of hate speech, strengthen emergency procedures, better process statements from victims and witnesses and disseminate information to the public in times of crisis.
Recently another great initiative called Techfugees has been created by Mike Butcher CEO of TechCrunch Europe. Techfugees working with the UNHRC is sponsoring global hackathons to develop practical solutions to the migrant crisis. Another great example of the tech community coming together and turn their attention and expertise to one of the most significant human challenges of the 21st century — of which surely this is one.
Coordinated industry wide action like this represents a great opportunity to make an impact in innovative ways. Take the problem of child sexual exploitation online for example. We have seen unprecedented industry cooperation to stop online abuse and exploitation and rid the Internet of vile child sexual abuse imagery. Started by the UK, under the leadership of Prime Minister David Cameron, the WePROTECT initiative has over 60 governments, tech companies and NGOs committed to the fight to eradicate child sexual abuse and exploitation online. Google and Microsoft have worked to all but rid the Internet of pathways to illegal child sexual abuse images and videos in search.
And the UK and the US governments, NGOs and tech companies are cooperating with the Internet Watch Foundation so that illegal abuse images known to law enforcement can be given digital identifiers which facilitate removal from their platforms and services. Whilst recognising that these two problems are different and that laws vary from country to country, we can certainly learn from this experience.
In regards to terrorist and extremist content online, the onus has been on government to identify risks and ask industry to help. This simply doesn’t scale. You know your platforms, products and services inside and out. And you have the talent and great minds to develop creative solutions. Tell us what can be done. We need your ideas but to start things off, here are a few suggestions that will have immediate and positive effect.
First, we ask that you take the lead to help scale positive, alternative voices. Help community and civil society groups to create, deliver and amplify alternative content that undercuts the Daesh brand proposition and that of other extremist groups. Companies with online advertising business models are best positioned to develop effective campaigns and increase the reach of counter speech initiatives. We need your best marketing experts to help counteract these hateful and manipulative myths and propaganda.
Second, we ask your support of established Government partnership organisations that cooperate to combat online extremism and fight radicalisation. Help us get this right. The EU Commission’s Internet Forum and the Global Coalition Communications Cell based in the UK Foreign Office, which draws on the expertise and resource of the 63 participating countries are examples of governments working together across borders to scale the response, including how to better identify and remove extremist material and to expose in counter narratives the vast discrepancy between Daesh propaganda and the harsh reality that is life on the ground.
Third, Develop technology solutions that facilitate the identification and removal of extremist content. We need innovative industry solutions that scale the identification and removal of terrorist content and develop more strategic mass take down efforts that will make these message networks harder for terrorists to reconstruct. We also need to better tackle automated bots and other techniques that support a propaganda machine to manipulate free speech and construe a narrow view to resemble that of the majority.
Working together with industry in 2015, the UK’s Counter Terrorism Internet Referral unit run by our metropolitan police department secured the removal over 55,000 pieces of terrorist and extremist content that violated company’s terms and conditions. Based on this model, the EU Internet Referral Unit was launched in July 2015 to secure the removal of content in a wider range of languages. The new unit has reported that 90% of their referrals to industry have been removed.
Last year, YouTube removed 14 million videos and in just one instance, Twitter suspended 10,000 Daesh accounts and recently announced new terms and conditions explicitly banning hateful conduct.
Following the Paris attacks, Telegram acted swiftly to suspend the accounts of 78 public channels used by Daesh and supporters in twelve languages.
So you see, companies already do a great deal to challenge terrorism and extremism online but responding to these evolving and sophisticated threats requires constant iteration and unprecedented cooperation.
Governments and industry should apply our learnings from working with the Internet Watch Foundation to tackle child sexual abuse and exploitation bycreating an industry body or forum like the IWF to share information and known tactics of extremist groups online and to develop strategies to combat them seems an obvious next step.
Four, Consider the dangers of terrorist and extremist propaganda, alongside other Internet harms when creating new products. There is one Internet for everyone, every age but sometimes we need to make special provisions to protect the needs of young people. A great example is YouTube’s recent launch of YouTube Kids app. It is imperative for developers to create products that are safer by design and to consider the dangers of terrorist and extremist propaganda, alongside other Internet harms when creating new products, features and services.
We need companies to support education projects aimed at building digital resilience to get young people thinking critically about what they see and read and to help them make informed and safe choices. Together with online safety charities you can help increase their awareness, confidence and the capability of parents and teachers.
And finally, it’s imperative that we empower the user community with better tools to respond to and report harmful content. Every person has the ability to recognize bias, hatred, and intolerance and to say, no, not on my profile, not on my piece of this great thing we all cherish. It is often said of technology platforms that they heal themselves and that members root out those who seek to damage the atmosphere or abuse it. Hateful or cruel content often results in more people denouncing it than supporting it. But we must make sure that people have the tools to do so and they are empowered to use them.
These are just a few ideas. My real appeal to you today is to make this agenda your own.
I believe that freedom of expression and freedom from harm are two ideals that can exist side by side. Let’s turn our ideas and creativity against the terrorists and extremists. We can’t allow them to exploit something that was developed to bring the world closer together and use it to drive us further apart.
To paraphrase Jared Cohen from Google Ideas in his recent Foreign Affairs article, it will take a broad coalition to marginalize the Islamic State online; to target its Central Command before digital society at large can come together to push the remaining rank and file into the digital equivalent of a remote cave.
I agree. That must be our ambition.
We can’t let the world retreat to a dark place of ignorance and prejudice. We must stand up for what we believe in. Freedom. Peace. Democracy. Understanding. Inclusivity. A world in which knowledge, debate and discussion bring people closer together and make them feel part of something greater than themselves.
The technology that was developed to unite us, must not divide us.