Regulation of online content has received little attention amid a global health crisis. But violent extremist activity has not stopped, and we need to get our response right, writes Anjum Rahman.
Today marks the first anniversary of the Christchurch Call, a response to the mass murder at two Christchurch mosques last year, a massacre livestreamed by the killer.
For the first time, in Paris on May 15 2019, technology companies and governments made a commitment to work together. Hurriedly, civil society organisations were invited to meet and be part of the Call. This was formalised in the creation of the Christchurch Call Advisory Network, of which, for full disclosure, I am one of three co-chairs.
The wording of the Call provided a narrow focus on areas that were less likely to be disputed. There has been general agreement that livestreaming of a mass murder is not desirable. Tech companies signed up to the Call have been successful in preventing sharing of livestream video footage of other mass murders.
The Call aims “to eliminate terrorist and violent extremis content online”. Defining who is a terrorist and how that is different from a violent extremist very much depends on one’s viewpoint. The cynic in me thinks “terrorism has become solely associated with attacks perpetrated by Muslims and the term “violent extremist” seems to be designed to keep it that way. Do white supremacist or “incel” killers not have a political agenda? They do seek to change behaviour and perceived power structures, along with terrorising the target population.
Resistance to state oppression has often involved violence. All countries recognise war heroes who fight for the state. Sometimes we recognise those who have fought against oppressive or enemy states – the French resistance, anyone? We haven’t come to any global consensus of when violence is or isn’t justified and calling armies “peacekeepers” can’t hide that they commit violent acts.
Some of the governments that have signed up to the Call have engaged in problematic activities in the online space. Whether it’s the misuse of Facebook users’ data, posting of inflammatory material, or other breaches of human rights.
Violence can be perpetrated by words and by moving and still images. In the domestic violence sphere, we recognise the impact of emotional abuse and harm. Depictions of violent acts can be traumatising, though they can also be evidence of crimes. Hate-filled language excludes and silences those who are subject to it, whether they are individuals or communities. Even moderators suffer the consequences.
Violent acts offline are preceded by violent speech, much of which is spread online. Mass murderers described as “lone wolf” attackers have significant histories of belonging to online chat groups, with like-minded members egging each other on. Dealing with expressions of online hate must be part of any successful counterterrorism effort and needs to be factored into the work of the Call. To be meaningful, the work has to move beyond livestream videos.
Along with the blocking of violent content, the achievements of the Call have included the development of a shared online crisis response protocol, and growth in the number of countries who have signed on. A major announcement in New York last September was the restructuring of the Global Internet Forum for Countering Terrorism (GIFCT).
While the move to independence is a positive one for GIFCT, in that it will now be an organisation with its own staff and director, it is still an organisation funded and governed by tech companies. The additional of an Independent Advisory Committee will give the forum access to the views of government and civil society representatives, those representatives have no voting powers or any effective way to exercise accountability other than through public and media channels.
Decisions made by the GIFCT have major impacts globally, both online and offline. There is a huge need for transparency and accountability in the way content moderation decisions are made. There have been concerns about the lack of transparency in the selection process for the Independent Advisory Committee. Individual platforms continue to have issues with their approach to fake news, bots, and the unwillingness to take down accounts of politicians and public figures who post content clearly in breach of the platform’s stated community standards.
The pressure for moderation of online violent extremist content can and will be used by governments to suppress opposition voices in their own countries. While the supporting governments of the Call are required to sign up to certain human rights commitments (notably, the United States is missing), there are limited policing mechanisms for those who breach those commitments.
All of this is why it is important to have a power sharing structure, where civil society organisations are effective in holding government and tech companies to account. Currently, the Christchurch Call framework has the greatest potential for civil society to have a meaningful input in the way technology is regulated, and to keep a watchful eye on the activities of the GIFCT. However, there remain challenges.
The Christchurch Call Advisory Network has no funding and is reliant on member organisations donating time and resources. Civil society organisations cannot match the profits of tech companies nor do they have the power to raise funding through taxation. There is still work to be done to ensure that there is adequate consultation, and mechanisms are put in place to ensure that the voice of the network is not simply ignored.
Regulation of online content moderation has not received much attention while the world is gripped by the global pandemic of Covid-19. Terrorist and violent extremist activity, however, has not stopped and marginalised communities continue to be at risk in almost every country. Technological developments have advanced at a much greater rate than governments’ and communities’ ability to respond to the dangers posed. This is why the work of the Call is urgent, and why it is so important to get the structures right.