In Europe, a new wave of terrorism driven by social media

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Terrorists seek to disseminate their corrupted ideologies online and inspire impressionable minds to commit deadly acts, writes Radek Sikorski. [Antonio Marín Segovia / Flickr]

The proliferation of extremist content online has led to growing pressure on tech firms. The EU has an opportunity to provide leadership by developing clear standards to decrease the prevalence of extremist propaganda, writes Radek Sikorski.

Radek Sikorski is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for European Studies at Harvard University and former Polish Defence & Foreign Minister.

Warfare today is increasingly unconventional, and the need to ensure online security against a modern host of threats is paramount. But more than ever, those threats are testing Europe’s ability to maintain a safe and secure virtual space.

In Western Europe, a new wave of terrorism is being driven by extremist propaganda and plots coordinated through social media. To the East, Russian provocation has shifted online to undermine democratic elections and instigate conflict in the hopes of destabilising a disjointed Europe.

These attacks and propaganda do not respect national boundaries and can infiltrate communities nearly undetected. They are all the more challenging to tackle as they create a virtual battleground, capitalising on an open Internet and interconnected society.

Robust government action is critical. The EU must better protect itself against Russian aggression online as it seeks to provoke upheaval. It must also be more forceful in defeating the rampant spread of extremism online as terrorists seek to disseminate their corrupted ideologies and inspire impressionable minds to commit deadly acts.

But European governments are not alone in this fight. As masters of the technologies used the world over, tech companies can and must play a pivotal role in disrupting virtual aggression, whether from Russian hackers or Islamist radicals.

At present, the proliferation of extremist content on enormously popular online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube means that vulnerable people can easily be exposed to messages of hate.

For far too many, this casual exposure sets them on a path towards becoming part of the cycle of violence which is repeatedly played out on our streets, and on our screens.

Given the scale of the problem, one would assume that the online platforms would be eager to shut off the flow of extremist poison circulating through cyberspace on a daily basis.

Shockingly, however, the reaction to online extremism from the leading tech firms has been unquestionably slow and decidedly lax. Terrorist recruitment videos and messages praising the actions of ISIS can still be easily found online.

Research by the Counter Extremism Project, for example, shows that JustPaste.it – a Polish platform set up by a student to upload images, text and video at no cost – continues to host extremist content.

In July 2017, JustPaste.it admitted it is struggling to address this malicious use of its platform, despite efforts that have included partnering with law enforcement agencies. ISIS has used JustPaste.it to upload everything from announcements to images of beheadings and mass executions.

The growing awareness about how extremists are communicating online has led to growing pressure on the tech firms to do more, and some progress has been achieved. But the EU has an opportunity to provide leadership in responding to this threat by developing clear and concrete standards for how tech companies should systematically and transparently decrease the prevalence of such propaganda.

The enemy is more than ever a virtual one, operating globally, and no single European state acting on its own will be as effective at countering this kind of unconventional warfare we will continue to see more of.

In the current turbulent political environment, many citizens across Europe are asking hard questions about the relevance of the EU and its institutions. These same citizens are also deeply concerned about their security, and that of their loved ones.

By addressing online security forcefully and demanding that tech firms own up to taking appropriate action to reduce violent extremism online, the EU can seize an opportunity to prove it can play a vital role in protecting the lives of its citizens, while ensuring that the Internet and technologies meant to bring us together, are not now weaponised against us.