Protecting data is key to countering violent extremism online

Businesses, the government, and citizens must work together to help combat the spread of online hate, according to Charles Kriel of Corsham Institute

Credit: Corsham Institute

The rapid rise of fake news, terrorist propaganda and malicious communications means that the internet has never been a more uncertain and dangerous place for vulnerable minds. 

With the ability to quickly create, and spread, false and inflammatory content at the touch of a button, online radicalisation is a problem set to get much worse before it gets better. 

The internet is proving to be a highly effective tool for extremism. Recent studies have suggested that half of British jihadists are radicalised and recruited online. In the last five years, it has been estimated that 53% of the UK’s Islamist terrorists were inspired by extremist content on the web over that period, compared to just 22 per cent before that. The murder of Labour MP Jo Cox by a white supremacist was also believed to have been inspired by extremist content online. 

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The Government’s Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (CTIRU) has stated that around 80% of this content is related to Syria and Iraq. It is being shared widely and posted on multiple platforms. Last year, the organisation removed over 300,000 online videos, with web pages and posts taken down after they were flagged up to internet companies by a specialist UK anti-terror team.

Tackling this problem is no easy task. There is a fine balance when regulating inflammatory or false content, whilst maintaining free speech and open access to information. These are issues we regularly discuss in our Ci CVE podcast series. Preserving the default anonymity of the internet is also critical, especially for protecting whistleblowers and journalists exposing wrongdoing, in the wider public interest. 

A key first step in preventing radicalisation must be tackling the methods perpetrators use to influence individuals. For example, using personal data to create targeted content, and using it to drive extremism is a common tactic to encourage radicalisation online. 

Organisations like Facebook, Google and Twitter monopolise citizen data, possessing frightening amounts of personal information about the public. Even in the right hands, without proper regulation, these data sets can be exploited in information bubbles, designed to enforce extremist views.

There also needs to be a concerted effort from technology providers, the government, and consumers to ensure personal data is properly protected. With the incoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), European entities now have fresh responsibilities for data processing, in terms of delivering high standards of privacy and security. 

These responsibilities must be taken seriously. Public data must be protected from exploitation from those who wish to spread propaganda. That’s why protecting data is critical for countering violent extremism online. 

Sam Trendall

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