Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Microsoft have created a joint forum to counter terrorism following years of criticisms that the technology corporations have failed to block violent extremists and propaganda on their platforms.
The Silicon Valley companies announced the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism on Monday, saying the collaboration would focus on technological solutions, research and partnerships with governments and civic groups.
The tech firms have long struggled to balance their missions of supporting free speech with the need to remove and prevent the spread of terrorist content. The companies have faced intense scrutiny over the way terrorist groups have used the site for recruitment and for spreading hateful and violent messages.
As part of the new forum, the companies said they would share best practices regarding “content detection and classification techniques using machine learning” and “define standard transparency reporting methods for terrorist content removals”. Through a partnership with a United Nations counter-terrorism committee and a range of organizations, the tech firms said they would also “identify how best to counter extremism and online hate, while respecting freedom of expression and privacy”.
In December, Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft unveiled a similar information-sharing initiative, pledging to work together to created a database of unique digital fingerprints known as “hashes” for videos and images that promote terrorism. That means when one firm flags and removes a piece of content that features violent terrorist imagery or a recruitment video, the other companies could use the hash to identify and take down the same content on their platforms.
Internal Facebook documents recently obtained by the Guardian provided a window into the complex rules and methods behind the social media corporation’s moderation of terrorist content. The guidelines for moderators revealed that the company requires them to learn the names and faces of more than 600 terrorist leaders, for example. The leaked documents also revealed that Facebook identified more than 1,300 posts on the site as “credible terrorist threats” in a single month and argued that the information uncovered had been “a massive help on identifying new terrorist organisations/leaders”.
Facebook has also invested in software to try and stop extremist content before it is published on its site through proactive screening. But some have argued that terrorists have found ways to bypass the rules and continue to post content.
Moderators have also argued that they are underpaid and undervalued, forced to work grueling jobs viewing violent and graphic content for hours on end. A Guardian investigation recently revealed that Facebook put the safety of its moderators at risk by inadvertently exposing their personal details to suspected terrorists.
The technology firms have faced increasing pressure from governments across the globe to stop the spread of extremist propaganda. Last year, White House officials met with Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft to discuss the subject.
The British prime minister, Theresa May, has recently renewed her campaign against the technology companies with a crackdown meant to punish platforms that fail to take sufficient action against terrorist propaganda. At a recent bilateral meeting in Paris, May and French president Emmanuel Macron said they would explore new legal liabilities for tech companies that don’t remove inflammatory content, including possible fines.
While governments have urged companies like Facebook to do more, the social network has also faced backlash for ethically questionable censorship of non-terrorist content under the guise of countering propaganda. Facebook sparked controversy last year when it censored academics, journalists and others following the death of a high-profile Kashmiri separatist militant who was labeled a terrorist by Indian authorities, but considered a freedom fighter by many Kashmiris and Pakistanis.
Earlier this month, Facebook censored a group of supporters of Chechen independence for violating policies addressing “organizations engaged in terrorist activity”, another example of the social network targeting government dissidents in its counter-terror efforts.
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