Are unregulated platforms a threat to our national security?

Whilst criticising the hypocrisy of media outlets, Britain’s counter-terrorism chief Neal Basu has said that far-right terrorists are being radicalised by mainstream newspaper coverage. The sickening attack on two mosques in New Zealand last week was a cowardly act of terrorism committed by an extremist desperate to give publicity to his brand of hatred. Disturbingly, his efforts to publicise his hateful views were then assisted by social and traditional media publishers.


Footage of the attack was initially live streamed to Facebook, which was then repeatedly shared across social media platforms such as Youtube and Reddit in the wake of the attack. Online shares from Facebook alone illustrate how industrial the scale is of hateful content shares online. According to the social network, footage was uploaded by users 1.5 million times in the first 24 hours. Of those, Facebook’s automatic detection systems automatically blocked 1.2 million leaving roughly 300,000 copies reverberating around the platform. On Youtube, new uploads of the attacker’s livestream appeared on the platform “as quickly as one per second.”


The reaction of much of the British media to the attack was disgraceful and wildly irresponsible. Videos of the attack became available on newspaper sites with the Sun, the Mirror and the Mail Online defying requests from New Zealand police on Friday not to spread the terrorist’s first-person footage. The Daily Mail’s website even published the killer’s racist manifesto.


At the same time that Facebook and YouTube were actively attempting to shut down the video, the news websites were uploading the footage. Algorithms used by Facebook gives a higher level of credence of that used by news websites – including the Sun, Mirror and MailOnline, which then effectively made it harder for Facebook to shut down shares.


The conduct of these companies in publicising the killer’s actions was so dire that the UK’s Counter-terror police chief Neil Basu stepped in to say it was time to accept that many terrorists were being radicalised by mainstream news outlets:


“The reality is that every terrorist we have dealt with has sought inspiration from the propaganda of others, and when they can’t find it on Facebook, YouTube, Telegram or Twitter they only have to turn on the TV, read the paper or go to one of a myriad of mainstream media websites struggling to compete with those platforms.”


The volume of uploads is astonishing. Not only does it say a lot about the power of platforms and the UK media to share horrific acts of violence, but also how there is no protection for the public. The video hosted by the MailOnline followed the reader down the page and YouTube shares were prominent on autoplay across twitter, making the footage virtually inescapable.


The prime minister of New Zealand called on social media platforms to do more to combat terror:


“We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist and that what is said on them is not the responsibility of the place where they are published,” she said.

“They are the publisher. Not just the postman. There cannot be a case of all profit no responsibility.”


It is argued that platforms play a lead role in strengthening and emboldening online extremism. The phenomenon of YouTube personalities in particular and the communities that spring up around the videos can become alarming recruiting tools for violent extremist fringes. Highly influential YouTube personalities are able to drip feed those watching with far-right propaganda. Dubbed “bloodsports” by their participants, these streams provide white nationalist alt-right groups with the potential to access the political consciousness of young people.


Researchers have warned tech companies for years that online extremism and radicalisation results in real-world violence. Technology researcher Rebecca Lewis even published a report last September detailing how YouTube influencers and far-right extremists gamed YouTube’s algorithm to push radicalisation messages and to turn a profit.


One of the most dangerous aspects of YouTube in this regard is how the platform’s algorithm curates content. The algorithm is there to keep you watching, to ensure more ad revenue, but that has the effect of nurturing radicalisation. Once you watch one or two of the extremist propaganda videos, YouTube then keeps suggesting more and more.


As Dan Hett, co-founder of Survivors Against Terror said on the matter:


“major online platforms are a primary and active component in the radicalisation of, mostly, young men – enough is enough.”

“I’m wholly convinced that a lot can be caught, blocked, banned, eradicated. Every extremist post and video that a vulnerable young person doesn’t see is another small victory for us all.”


Regarding the attack last week, Home Office Minister Ben Wallace MP said:


“Social media platforms should be ashamed that they have enabled a terrorist to livestream this evil massacre and spread this mantra of hate to the whole world.

The reality is that without introducing independent regulation, the likes of Facebook, the Mirror, and other media companies are able to assist in spreading the propaganda of hate in the future.”


Media companies Facebook, The Mirror, Twitter, The Sun, YouTube and The Daily Mail all share moral responsibility for hosting, publicising and amplifying the views of a violent racist extremist. Yet, none of these media companies are regulated. Facebook handle complaints internally. Media publishers have IPSO – an industry association to handle complaints; starved of independence and regulatory powers.


Without independent regulation of platforms and news websites, what happened after New Zealand could then happen again.


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