Andrew Brown: How IS’s propaganda floods the internet

09 June 2017

istock

“ENOUGH is enough,” Theresa May says. So that is government policy for at least the next 48 hours. Two right-wing columnists, Katie Hopkins and Allison Pearson, demand intern­ment or deportation for everyone who comes to the attention of the security services as a potential jihadi.

Government ministers fulminate against internet companies, although it is not at all clear what they want done. If it is the control of encrypted communications, that cannot be done while they’re in transit, for very good mathematical reasons. To allow only friendly governments to break into such messages is as impossible as squaring a circle.

If, on the other hand, they want to control or limit the floods of jihadi propaganda on the internet, there is nothing logically impossible about this, but it is enormously difficult be­­­cause of the sheer volume of stuff involved. There are something like 400 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, now­adays, and there is a limit to how much can be checked by machines without human inter­vention.

Computers are now astonishingly good at facial recognition, and getting other informa­tion out of images. That is one reason why the anti-spam measures on many sites ask you to recognise, for example, all the squares with street signs on them in a mosaic of pictures. This is not just to prove that you are not a com­­­puter, but also to provide train­ing materials for Google’s own AI networks, so that they learn to see what you do. But it is much easier to use such tech­niques to look for pornography or copy­righted materials than it is to look for jihadi propaganda.

An online magazine, Vice, had an excellent feature on the way that jihadi groups work to smuggle their messages out on these net­works: “The amount of YouTube and other Google links created to push terrorist content is hard to overstate. Take one IS recruitment video, ‘And You Will be Superior’: the 35-­­minute video, released on 18 March, urges people of all ages to join IS by featuring suicide bombers from different walks of life — a doctor, a disabled fighter, and a young child — describing their lives before footage of their respective suicide operations.

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“Think about that for a moment: a pro­paganda technique like that is impervious to the outrage of Western politicians calling them ‘cowards’. When IS releases a video like this, an array of pro-IS media groups — trans­lators, promoters, social media leaders, link-creators — immediately get to work in push­ing it out across the internet.”

Within two days after the video had ap­­peared, it had been placed on 136 different places on Google services alone. These are often disguised in various ways — hidden so that they do not show up in search results, or with a caption embedded in them which leads to the real link to the atrocity video elsewhere.

There cannot be anyone working for Face­book, Google, or any of the other tech giants who wants to be a conduit for stuff like that. But it is an inevitable, if entirely un­­wanted, consequence of their business model that there should be far more material than they can vet, and that they provide the easiest, cheapest, and almost the least traceable way to broadcast material around the world.

The German government is mulling very large fines — €50,000 a day — for internet companies that leave up illegal material after it has been reported. So I imagine the con­sequence will be sheds full of miserable peasants in Indonesia or the Philippines, who have to spend all day scanning YouTube up­­loads for ideologically suspect material that it would cost the publishers real money to publish.

 

MEANWHILE, the usual arguments go back and forth about whether and to what extent the ideologies of non-violent extremism should be criminalised. The Church of Eng­land ought to have views on this: after all, its established status was, until 1832, an extreme example of criminalising non-violent extrem­ists: canting dissenters, papists, and the like.

But only a few nostalgic reactionaries, such as Richard Dawkins, still believe that it would be possible to restore that kind of ideological uniformity (if round a rather different ideo­logy). Instead, we now have a tendency to argue that religion or ideology has nothing to do with terrorism. If that were really the case, the two British holidaymakers who last week ploughed their car into a crowd in Marbella after a nightclub argument, injuring six people and a seven-week-old baby, would have received rather more extensive coverage than they did.

 

PERHAPS the answer is just to retreat to a monastery. The former Archbishop of Canter­bury Lord Williams reviewed Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option at length in the New Statesman, and courteously sliced it to bits: “What is left most worryingly vague is how such groups might maintain a level of self-criticism, and how they would handle issues around authority and management of con­flict.”

One can see how he might zoom in on this weakness. But how long has it been since the lead review in a mainstream magazine was by a theologian on a serious matter of internal Christian debate?

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