Tech Industry, U.S. Leaders Discuss ISIS' Social Media Use

February 1, 2016

Based on the kind of year that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had in 2015, it is safe to say that most global leaders consider fighting ISIS as one of their top resolutions for 2016. While it would be extremely difficult to defeat ISIS in a single year, the United States government has already reached out to the largest tech companies in hopes of handicapping ISIS efforts via the Internet.

 

In 2015, the Obama administration admitted that it had failed to thwart terrorist propaganda, especially on social media. President Obama started the New Year by holding a meeting between White House officials and Silicon Valley tycoons. The groups met on January 8th in a federal government building located in San Jose to discuss social media and the extremist terrorist groups that use it for their self-advancement.  

 

Important figures who represented the technology industry included Apple CEO Tim Cook, Facebook Chief Operating Staff Sheryl Sandberg, and YouTube Chief Executive Susan Wojcicki. While D.C. shipped out current FBI Director James Comey and Attorney General Loretta Lynch amongst other Senior White House officials.

 

The White House explained that its main goal was to “undercut” the efforts of extremist groups like ISIS on social media. ISIS is of particular importance because it increasingly uses social media to gain members, encourage violence, and spread its message. White House Press Secretary, John Earnest explained that ISIS’ efforts can be maimed by proposing new user rules on social media that can “disrupt paths to radicalization” and “identify recruitment patterns.”  

 

However, terrorists and their utilization of the Internet are not new. Al Qaeda paved the way when they posted videos on the Internet. Instead of long, static videos of older men talking in Arabic, however, ISIS has uploaded videos of bloodshed, decapitations, and propaganda. They are also notorious for posting threatening Tweets, and using websites like Facebook to recruit teenagers under the disguise of Syrian relief organizations.

 

ISIS’ utilization of frontrunner social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have become more dangerous with its new wave of propaganda being released in different languages, including English. Doing so spreads their propaganda to new audiences, and with the intention of winning Western Muslim and individual support from Western Europe and the United States. Thus, U.S. officials deem the issue a national security threat.

 

Sources say that talks between the White House and Silicone Valley mostly revolved around means to control ISIS propaganda via popular social media websites. In their request for technology companies to monitor the narrative of user language, a debate on whether a company’s involvement in monitoring users language conflicted with their right to protect the free speech erupted. Tech executives fear that if they begin to monitor speech that trust will decline with their site’s users.1

 

However, recent altercations within some companies have been made to create a middle ground. Recently, Twitter revised it’s abuser policy which explicitly states that speech found to be “threatening or promoting terrorism” in anyway was not protected as free speech.2

 

A Facebook source explained that the company has created a Zero Tolerance Policy for terrorism and works around the clock to quickly remove any posts related to terrorism. A different Facebook source explained, after the meeting, “this [meeting] confirmed that we are united in our goal to keep terrorists and terror-promoting material off the Internet.”2

 

Another topic of discussion pertained to encryption technologies. With the rise in smartphones and smart devices being produced by companies like Apple and Google, it has become harder for government officials to monitor conversations.1 This could become problematic as ISIS continues to grow and finds itself with a more dispersed community of members. Dispersion will lead to not only their increased reliance on smart devices, but in doing so will also make it difficult for intelligence agencies to keep accurate tabs on members and activity.

 

So while encryption may be another obstacle for how the U.S. government handles ISIS and other extremist terrorist networks, as of October of 2015, the Obama administration decided to put a hold to legislation that would force companies to decrypt their data.

 

Aside from what was said at the meeting, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has established an anti-terrorism campaign called Peer to Peer: Challenging Extremism. Its audience consists of young adults and college students who are encouraged to use social media to speak out against hate crimes, extremist speech and ideas.2 While this community can present ideas contrary to those expressed by ISIS, there is still more to be done in order to combat ISIS.

 

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