Social Media Outlets Tasked as Terrorist Watchdogs

by Matt Klassen on July 13, 2015

As the global terrorist element turns increasingly towards social media as a recruiting tool, a sounding board to vehemently spread hate, or even as a covert means of communication, governments and law enforcement agencies are left wondering how to police such a widespread and largely anonymous battle ground.

With such a paucity of options to effectively combat digital terrorism, social media operators like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube may soon be tasked as partners in this fight, as reportedly the text of a bill approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee will compel such firms to report “terrorist activity” to federal authorities, including but not limited to posts about “explosives, destructive devices, and weapons of mass destruction.”

Now all of these sites do already have policies regarding the removal of such content, but none of them actively seek out such content and report it to authorities, and it is this more proactive step, government officials argue, that operators need to take. Now while there are distinct upsides to conscripting social media operators into the digital war of terrorism—notably having better trained eyes searching out terrorism-related content—there’s no question that many will see this as yet another invasion of our online privacy… with the government now casting social media companies in the role of Big Brother.

But before we all cry foul that these social media operators are being forced into doing something they don’t want to do, according to Reuters an official explained that the purpose of such a bill would be to provide “social media companies additional legal protection if they reported to the authorities on traffic circulated by their users, rather than coerce them to spy on users.”

Such language might imply that social networks are already monitoring their sites for such hate-filled and terrorist-oriented content, but simply don’t have the legal protection (or the proper legal compulsion) to actually do anything about it apart from removing the content itself. If that’s the case, then truly this is less of social media conscription and more of a legal empowerment for such companies to do their civic and moral duty. Of course where you land on exactly that definition will likely determine your response to this story as a whole.

But paradoxically it seems that social networks really aren’t doing enough to police the content of their sites, meaning in actuality this bill is all about coercion. Last week at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Dianne Feinstein, the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee and sponsor of the legislation, argued that social media companies “should be working with the government to prevent the use of their systems by violent militants.”

“Twitter, FB and YouTube all, as I understand it, remove content on their sites that come to their attention if it violates their terms of service, including terrorism,” Feinstein said. But, she said, “the companies do not proactively monitor their sites to identify such content nor do they inform the FBI when they identify or remove their content. I believe they should.” [italics mine]

Now don’t get me wrong, I think we need all the tools we have get to fight against the exponential growth of digital terrorism, but I’m just not sure this is the way to go about it. Clearly there is an attempt at transparency here, with the government making it clear that they are simply making it easier for social media operators to monitor their own sites (something the NSA has covertly been doing for years, no doubt) and offering them legal protection when reporting violations, but nevertheless there is a foundation of coercion and forced participation that leaves me with a distinctly uneasy feeling.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. Follow by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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