A while ago, the hashtag #RIPJKRowling trended on Twitter. It was so enthralling that the social media had to clarify that the English author was indeed still alive and tweeting away. The hashtag was the Twitterverse’s response to Rowling’s new book: “Troubled blood”, published under her pseudonym Robert Galbraith. The bone of contention was a serial killer character, who abducted and murdered women while adorned in female clothes, all to the scintillating tune of ‘never trust a man in a dress’. Like all things on the internet, the hashtag drew both blood and hard lines among two camps, both vociferously defending their stance.
Supporters of Rowling saw the hashtag as an attack on her freedom to speech and right to expression and opinion. After all, she was not the first author to pen a cross-dressing male serial killer. If so, we should also ‘cancel’ Psycho and Silence of the Lamb! For them, the hashtag was simply another blowout from ‘snowflakes’ yet again taking offence to their delicate sensibilities.
Proponents of the hashtag, however, saw themselves as expressing their ire at a beloved author in what they considered the culmination of her transphobic views. To them, the hashtag symbolized the death of Rowling’s reputation and her place and adoration in their lives. The arguments of both parties prompt two critical questions relevant to today’s culture of ‘cancellation’ and political correctness: To tweet or not to tweet? Where does freedom of speech end and consequences begin?
I recently logged out of (and blacklisted) Facebook and Instagram, and I can confidently say that I feel much better without the needless doomscrolling through an endless page of depressing news and vacation photos that I do not care about. But aside from avoiding painful confrontations with beautiful Instagram models and racist relatives on Facebook, are there other reasons why you might want to consider quitting social media?
A McKinsey report from June 2020 states that the well-being of European citizens fell to its lowest point since 1980 last April as accounts of depression and loneliness tripled compared to pre-COVID standards. However, loneliness problems are far from new and have many causes, such as the pervasiveness of social media. This is especially relevant for our ‘digitally native’ generation that has grown up with social media as a core part of our formative years.
In my last article we discussed what terrorism is and how the Islamic State got to where they are today. A brief conclusion highlights how terrorism is a method to obtain political power by executing acts of violence directed at civilian targets with the aim of spreading fear amongst a state’s citizens. The process leading up to an act of terrorism may be referred to as radicalization. Today, much is being made about radicalization on the Internet and how violent extremist groups are using the platform to spread their messages worldwide. This article will explore some of these narratives as well as discussing the methods in place to prevent and combat radicalization.
The use of propaganda in conflicts is nothing revolutionary, however what differentiates contemporary extremist propaganda from previous forms is the method of communication. When Al Qaida initiated their large-scale propaganda campaign in the early 2000’s they were dependent on existing media outlets to convey their messages. Rather than having to submit material to established media outlets such as Al Jazeera, today it is possible to distribute messages through an array of outlets online. What this form of communication has enabled is that violence promoting groups may spread their ideologies to an audience of proportions unheard of previously. Twitter, in 2016 alone, removed 235 000 accounts that have been deemed to be supportive and active in the distribution of terrorist-related content.
Since the 2014 self-declaration of the Islamic State’s caliphate [a form of Islamist government representing the political unity and leadership of the Muslim world] the terrorist organisation has rapidly expanded its global propaganda campaign. At the centre of this campaign is Dabiq, the online magazine written in seven languages by IS own media outlet, Al Hayat. Dabiq aims to offer an insight into the “daily life” of the caliphate and combines gruesome images from the battleground with religious discussions and examples of IS built infrastructure. One example of this are articles where converts to the Islamic State offer “sincere words of advice” to former Christians who have converted to Islam, in turn attempting to establish a link between the terrorist group and potential recruits. Outside of Dabiq, IS have released two issues of Rumiyah – Rome – which focuses less on the theological discussions than Dabiq. In the latest issue of Rumiyah readers are offered a discussion on the psychological and practical problems one might run into before conducting a “just terror attack”. Promoting the knife as the weapon of choice, the reader is offered religious guidance aimed at legitimizing the tactic as well as a practical discussion on pros and cons of different types of knives. IS and other self-proclaimed jihadist groups have previously spread these types of “terrorist-attacks for dummies”, for those interested, instructions for bomb-making are only a few clicks away. IS also produce an Arabic newsletter, as well as French periodical Dar al-Islam.
In 2015 I analysed IS propaganda in comparison to Al Qaeda’s and found a clear distinction between how the two groups have presented themselves through outward directed messages. What the study revealed was that IS presented an identity in accordance with a martial role. A martial role, which is one of two aspects of Arena and Arrigo’s theory “the terrorist identity” emphasises military strength and the overwhelming sense of uniqueness within a group. This uniqueness if founded on the establishment of the caliphate and control of a geographical area. IS control of an area spanning across northern Iraq and Syria,(an area roughly the size of the UK) is a clear distinction to other self-proclaimed jihadist-groups. Although Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram are active in specific areas of Somalia/Kenya and Nigeria/Cameroon/Niger/Chad respectively, these groups do not hold uncontested territories in which they are able to produces and uphold infrastructure as IS have. If you are interested in reading more about the self-presented identities of IS and Al Qaida,click here.
Nevertheless, IS have over the past two years gained recognition for the gruesome propaganda videos, which borrow influence from western culture, such as video games and movies. These videos include countless executions, decapitations, public crucifixions, the tossing of HBTQ – persons off buildings, the Jordanian pilot burnt to death in a cage, and suicide bombings. In a new study from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point a group of researchers and military personnel, including leading terrorism researcher Bruce Hoffman, have examined over 9,000 official media products produced by the Islamic State. The study revealed that over 50 percent of produced media focused on issues outside the Islamic State’s borders. These issues contain walkthroughs on how to perform terrorist attacks – such as the one presented in this article –, fatwas calling for attacks against westerners, and several articles condemning and establishing their enemies as the generalizable other. However, new studies are revealing that the group’s presence on social media platforms is reducing.
However, with IS presence reducing on American social media accounts,far right extremist groups have increased by 600 percent on Twitter .Right-wing extremist groups such as the Nordic Resistance Movement (Nordiska Motstånds Rörelsen – NMR), which is predominantly active in Sweden and Finland, presents an often overlooked threat to a nations security. In Sweden the NMR are attempting to frighten city officials and journalists. In Borlänge, the movement’s Nordic hub, officials have been greeted by their front steps covered in blood and in southern Sweden a municipal official had his car lit on fire and garage door covered with the NMR’s symbol. Meanwhile in Finland, the government is attempting to pass legislation which would enable the banning of extremist groups. The new legislation is a response to the death of a 28-year old that died of wounds he received at a NMR demonstration. If you are interested in the rhetoric of right-wing extremists in Europe read my colleague Sabine Volk’s insightful article on the subject.
The counter-narrative method may be divided into three areas; direct counter-narratives, aimed directly at the messages released by extremist groups. Alternative narratives offer an alternative understanding of the narratives released by extremist groups aiming at delegitimising the violence aspect within a group’s ideology. Within the alternative method the messenger, i.e. the person/group delivering the alternative message must retain a high level of legitimacy within the intended recipients. In the case of takfir-salfist jihadist, Imams and other Islamic religious leaders may condemn the fatwa’s produced by the Islamic State and produce fatwa’s condemning violence by drawing references from the Quran. More so, the experiences and knowledge of former members of right-wing extremism has proven to be an effective method for engaging the target audience in preventative discussions. This type of messenger is also gaining traction as a deterrent in jihadist recruitment. The third counter-narrative method is the development of media- and information knowledge and critical thinking amongst youth. This tactic is particularly popular in the Nordic countries. However, despite the new databases, knowledge centres and support for counter-narratives, there is little to no evidence supporting the effectiveness of direct counter-narrative campaigns as part of a radicalization prevention strategy. Rather than acting as a preventative measure the removal of extremist content online, which is a common aspect of counter-narrative campaigns, and messages directly targeting extremist content, are dependent on the publication and distribution of extremist propaganda. Therefore the method is heavily reliant on extremist groups, rather that setting its own preventative agenda.
Another problem facing current preventative campaigns is the difficulty in measuring their success. Security details will always be able to measure the amount of casualties in terrorist attacks and the figures regarding the roughly 30 000 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq have been waved across most international media outlets. The amount of individuals who have not been radicalized is intangible, and existing measurement tools are inadequate. However, leading actors within counter-narratives such as the British think-tankInstitute for Strategic Dialogue are developing instruments for measuring counter-narratives outreach. Nevertheless, measuring likes, comments and shares on social media will not highlight the amount of individuals that have not become radicalized.
Although current research paints a gloomy picture for those encouraging counter-narrative campaigns, those promoting alternative narratives and media- and information education have a more positive outlook. Research in the Netherlands, the United States, and the UK, has pointed towards the potential that alternative narratives may be developed as part of complete anti-radicalization campaign. More so, the application of media and information education in youth is likely to develop the critical thinking amongst a state’s citizens, in turn making them more resilient to anti-democratic narratives.
There is no such thing as a quick fix when it comes to countering radicalization and recruitment to violence promoting extremist groups. However, by combining preventative measures with deterrent methods, which are known as soft vs. tough methods, it is possible to create a long- and short-term strategy to combat terrorism and violent extremism. In this, the internet remains an important battleground.
Eric Hartshornewill be back next month with his editorial asking if either Soft or Tough methods of countering radicalisation are more effective. For Eric’s article on the history of terrorism, click here.
Can we continue relying on internet hosts to be solely responsible for taking down offensive content or hate speech?
Last week’s headlines traced the scuffle between Norway and Mark Zuckerberg when one of Norway’s largest newspapers, Aftenposten, criticised Facebook for removing their photos of the ‘napalm girl’ on account of child nudity. The photo of the ‘napalm girl’ or Phan Thị Kim Phúc, from Vietnam and now a Canadian citizen, was taken on 7th June1972 during the Vietnam War. It shows her as a nine year-old-child, running away from a South Vietnamese napalm attack which left her severely burned. Taken by Nick Ut of the Associated Press, the image is world famous for its depiction of the violence of the Vietnam conflict. Zuckerberg later reneged on his decision to remove the photo and acknowledged the iconic status of the historical image. Whilst this incident might primarily raise alarm bells about the power that Facebook wields over our modern lives, it is also symptomatic of the arbitrariness of online content monitoring.
Alongside its status as one of the most democratic exercises in information sharing, the internet is home to an increasing body of offensive content and unchecked manifestations of hate speech. Whilst some self-censuring is taking place, (for example in the form of ‘NSFW’ indications and ‘content notes’), such warnings are essentially used in a humorous manner. If there’s to be a concerted effort to tackle hate speech and offensive material which transcends the old adage of turning a blind eye, how is this to be achieved?
Should governments and the international community have a role to play?
Simply put, the answer from the European Convention on Human Rights is a resounding no. Article 10 ECHR guarantees freedom of expression for all and goes on to say that:
‘This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.’
This freedom is extended to internet users and the Secretary General of the Council of Europe has confirmed that ‘the state [must] not exercise surveillance over Internet users’ communications and activity on the internet except when this is strictly in compliance with Articles 8 and 10 of the Convention.’ The Court’s case law confirms a support for freedom of expression, even if the article does allow some margin of appreciation for states to take restrictive measures, as was the case in Delfi v. Estonia , where the court held that there had not been a violation of Article 10.
Similarly, Article 11 of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights provides that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers’.
This is inherently a good thing. Of course there are some countries in Europe where the systematic blocking of whole websites has severely reduced freedom of expression and access to internet material to an unacceptable level. Consider the recent ECHR case, Cengiz and others v. Turkey, where the court unanimously held that there had been a violation of article 10 due to the blocking of access to Google over a long period(Ahmet Yıldırım v. Turkey ). And yet, the question we must ask ourselves is, if governments aren’t checking online content, then who is?
Net neutrality: a commercial myth?
The hands-off approach taken to internet monitoring by national governments (as advised by the Council of Europe and EU) results in a two-fold problem:
this leaves internet providers and website hosts – i.e. private companies – in charge of monitoring content;
these companies are sensitive to legal threats, as well as their reputation among their users and end up haphazardly take down content without serious reflection.
In the case of the former, the crux is this: when we leave it to web hosts to decide what is suitable content and what isn’t, we are allowing organisations with their own commercial, social and political agendas to act as the moral arbiters for all society. Is this democratic?
And in the case of the latter, this is exactly what happened with Facebook napalm incident. Is this double burden of total freedom and total responsibility not actually counter-productive to freedom of expression online? As the 2016 Annual report on state of human rights, democracy and rule of law in Europe concludes:
‘the fact that internet intermediaries fear being held liable for the content they transmit may have a chilling effect on the freedom of expression online.’
If we’re serious about blocking hate speech and inappropriate content, we need more explicit guidelines from governments and IOs. As it stands, we hail our freedom from government censorship but are trapped in an online game where private web hosts write their own rulebooks.