Time is running out for extremists on social media

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At the moment, if the police need to get involved, it is the public purse paying for a problem created by Facebook. – Fiyaz Mughal, Founder of TellMAMA
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The British parliament is considering a law that would force online platforms to ban extremist content while the EU wants to fine sites if they fail to remove content within an hour. (Reuters)
Updated 16 September 2018
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Time is running out for extremists on social media

  • The UK and EU are planning laws to hold Facebook and Twitter accountable for those who hide behind ‘secret’ groups
  • Social media companies fail to act even when online abuse spills over into real life

LONDON: They are the new autocrats. Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Google rule the world, unhindered by borders and apparently unhampered by regulation. But not, perhaps, for much longer.
The British parliament is to consider introducing a law that would force online platforms to remove and ban extremist content of any nature, whether racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic or sexist. And in Brussels, the EU wants to fine online sites if they fail to remove “illegal and extremist” content within one hour.
But campaigners say such measures — well-intentioned as they are — are doomed to failure.
“The EU directive will change little. Less than 1 percent of the material out there is illegal because the staff on Google remove it automatically anyway. The other 99 percent is not illegal, even if it is extremist in nature,” said Fiyaz Mughal, founder of TellMAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks). “This is just political bamboozling.”
In her proposed Online Forums Bill, British member of parliament Lucy Powell aims to “tackle online hate, fake news and radicalization” by a) making moderators and administrators of social media platforms legally responsible for what appears on their sites; and b) making public the name of every secret Facebook group and how many members it has.
Her bill has broad appeal. Powell, a member of the opposition Labour party, has garnered strong support from political opponents in the Conservative party.
She is especially concerned with how Facebook, the world’s most popular social network with 1.8 billion active users, circulates extremist material and opinions through secret or closed groups, where membership is by invitation only. “Social media has given extremists a new tool with which to recruit and radicalize,” she said. “It is something we are frighteningly unequipped to deal with.”
“Worryingly, it is on Facebook, which most of us in Britain use, where people are being exposed to extremist material. Instead of small meetings or obscure websites in the darkest corners of the Internet, our favorite social media site is increasingly where hate is cultivated. Extremist views go unchallenged. Unacceptable language is treated as the norm. There are no societal norms in the dark crevices of the the online world.”
Fiyaz Mughal of TellMAMA agrees; he said he has made the same argument countless times to officials. “I’ve been called in by politicians and senior civil servants dozens of times, both at the Home Office (interior ministry) and the Ministry of Culture, Media and Sport, and what you get is a lot of hand-wringing and talk about free speech,” he said. “The English Defense League, a far-right group, regularly post material which is racist and Islamophobic — extremist — but it is not seen as illegal.”
Closed Facebook groups may disguise their true nature, he said. “There is a group supposedly for atheists which is in reality a forum for the far right. How do we know? Because they sprinkle insignia associated with the (far-right) English Defense League all over the site. That closed group reaches 50,000 to 60,000 people, spreading hate against Muslims. Yet Facebook rejected our complaint, saying it did not contravene their standards.”
Social media companies fail to act even when online abuse spills over into real life, said Mughal. “A Muslim woman got some abuse for something she had said and told the person to go away and leave her alone. The man who posted the abusive comment then turned up at the woman’s workplace and took photos, which he sent to her. It was intimidation, to show her he could get to her.
“The police took action and were willing to arrest the man, but the woman said that would inflame the situation and asked for him to be cautioned only. I reported the incident to Facebook, but it took them four or five months to respond, and even then it was to say it did not contravene their standards. This was clearly a case of harassment and cyber-bullying, which are offenses. They clearly have no understanding of the law so who exactly is setting those standards for Facebook and all the rest?”
In Brussels, the EU has also run out of patience. Back in March, Internet firms were given three months to show they were acting more speedily to keep extremist material off their sites.
But their efforts have failed to impress. In his State of the Union address to the European parliament on Wednesday, EU chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker said that only legislation would force the companies to do the right thing. Under the proposed EU directive, they must within an hour take down any content that incites or advocates extremist offenses or shows how to commit such offenses or promotes extremist groups. If they miss that deadline they will face hefty fines of up to 4 percent of their annual global turnover, although they will also have the right to challenge removal orders. “One hour is the decisive time window (during which) the greatest damage takes place,” Juncker said.
Mughal agreed that “the greatest dissemination of hate” happens in the first hour after posting. But the directive must be accepted by all 28 EU member states and also requires each country to put in place the capacity to identify extremist content online. “But what if the different states have different ideas about what constitutes extremist or hate speech? There is no single set of laws on this and the EU’s snail-like pace in tackling the far right is hardly encouraging.”
There are solutions, he added. One is to re-classify all social media firms as publishers. “Publishers already bear responsibilities under the law, which means they can be taken to court and made to change. Or there should be an independent arbitrator with the power to impose fines. At the moment, if the police need to get involved, it is the public purse paying for a problem created by Facebook.”
In a statement, Facebook defended secret groups as places where people could come together “in a safe way to discuss sensitive issues which might otherwise put them at risk in their society.”
The statement went on: “Like all parts of Facebook, people in these groups must adhere to our Community Standards, which lay out what is and isn’t allowed on our service. These include strict rules around hate speech, harassment, bullying and terrorist and extremist content. When people break these rules, including in secret groups, we take action.”
The company has invested in security to detect problem content “without anyone needing to report it,” and of the 2.5 million pieces of hate speech removed from Facebook since January, 38 percent were “proactively flagged” by Facebook before anyone reported it.
On the EU directive, Facebook said: ”There is no place for terrorism on Facebook, and we share the goal of the European Commission to fight it and believe that it is only through a common effort across companies, civil society and institutions that results can be achieved. We’ve made significant strides finding and removing terrorist propaganda quickly and at scale, but we know we can do more.”
Twitter and Google did not respond to requests for comment.


Journalist murder marks upsurge in N. Ireland unrest

Journalist Lyra McKee poses for a portrait outside the Sunflower Pub on Union Street in Belfast, Northern Ireland May 19, 2017. (REUTERS)
Updated 22 April 2019
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Journalist murder marks upsurge in N. Ireland unrest

  • McKee, 29, was shot in the head late Thursday by, police believe, dissident republicans linked to the New IRA paramilitary group as they clashed with police in Northern Ireland’s second city

DUBLIN: The killing of a journalist in Londonderry marks the latest upsurge of violence in Northern Ireland — where fears are growing that a fragile and hard-won peace is increasingly at risk.
Lyra McKee, 29, was shot dead during a riot as dissident republicans clashed Thursday with police in the province’s second city — a historic flashpoint in the three decades of violence known as “The Troubles.”
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement largely ended the turbulence in Northern Ireland — mandating a withdrawal of British security forces and the disarming of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) paramilitary group.
But dissident republicans — seeking Northern Ireland’s departure from the United Kingdom and integration into the Republic of Ireland through violent means — remain active.
Police believe the New IRA splinter group is behind McKee’s murder.

Among commentators there is a wide-held belief that the perpetrators are youngsters not old enough to remember “The Troubles,” and are being manipulated by a radical older element.
“There’s a dangerous radicalization of young people in Derry by those linked to and on the periphery of the New IRA,” wrote The Irish Times newspaper’s security correspondent Allison Morris.
Police Service of Northern Ireland detective superintendent Jason Murphy, who is leading the probe into McKee’s death, warned: “What we’re seeing is a new breed of terrorist coming through the ranks.”
Two men aged 18 and 19 were arrested Thursday but later released without charges.
Police appealed again to the community for help in finding the killer.
“I know there will be some people who know what happened but are scared to come forward but if you have information, no matter how small, please contact detectives,” said Murphy, stressing that the information would be treated as “100 percent anonymous.”

McKee’s murder follows a car bomb in Londonderry in January and a spate of letter bombs sent to British targets in March — both claimed by the New IRA.
There is speculation that Brexit — which has raised the spectre of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland — is acting as an irritant to dissident republicans.
Proposed divorce deals with the EU could see Northern Ireland more closely aligned to the Republic of Ireland or bound tighter in union with mainland Britain — raising competing loyalist and republican visions of the future.
Kieran McConaghy, a lecturer in terrorism at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said it was “hard to say” whether Brexit has played a “major role” in recent attacks, as such events have been consistent since the cease-fire.
Since the British government began publishing security assessments in 2010, the threat of terrorism in Northern Ireland has remained at “severe” — denoting that an attack is considered “highly likely.”
However, “Brexit hasn’t been good for stability in Northern Ireland,” McConaghy told CBC.
“It has made people more uncomfortable with the peace process in Northern Ireland, which is seen to be faltering at present.
“Politicians would do well to try and clarify some of the uncertainty... so that organizations like the New IRA and others don’t fill that political vacuum.”
There are particular fears that a no-deal hard Brexit would see checks erected along the 500-kilometer (310-mile) border, which would offer dissident militants a natural target.

Following McKee’s murder, police in the republican area of Londonderry where McKee was killed say they have experienced a “sea change” in previously-strained community attitudes toward officers.
The Free Derry Corner landmark wall has been repainted to reflect the local community’s revulsion.
Underneath the sign “You are now entering free Derry,” marking the start of a republican area, a message now reads: “Not in our name. R. I. P. Lyra.”
In the wake of her murder, Northern Ireland’s six main political parties — including rival unionists and republicans who have been unable to form a devolved government for more than two years — issued a rare joint statement.
“It was a pointless and futile act to destroy the progress made over the last 20 years, which has the overwhelming support of people everywhere,” it read.