This year could become another banner year for online extremism. Far-right political parties in Europe could make significant gains in 2017's elections. And ISIS, though it has lost much of its territorial foothold, is far from dead, as recent events in Berlin, Istanbul, and Baghdad have shown. Social media surely will continue to play a role in the success or failure of these extremist groups.
Social media is a neutral communications platform that can be used for good or evil purposes, but it has become the weapon of choice for extremist propagandists. This is not surprising. Extremists from the Nazis onward long have gravitated to the latest communications technology to give them the most bang for the buck. In the 1930s and 40s, radio was the Internet of its time, spreading propaganda, fake news, and hatred through the airwaves to listeners throughout the world. Neither radio nor social media were designed for such nefarious purposes, but propagandists, then as now, understand how to exploit communications platforms.
In recent years, ISIS has enlisted thousands of foreign fighters through its online activities, notably via slick videos posted on YouTube and other Internet channels. Because of the large amount of personal information posted online by social media users, ISIS recruiters and other extremists now personalize their messages directly for individuals. As the Nazis understood as early as the 1920s, establishing a personal relationship with a targeted audience is crucial part of a successful propaganda strategy. Today, the meeting sites are no longer the beer hall, rally, or street parade. They're more likely to be email, Whatsapp, and Skype.
Extremist groups reach out to those who are disaffected or disillusioned with the status quo. Social media permits discontented individuals to seek out like-minded persons or for radical recruiters to find them. This was something that Adolf Hitler grasped more than 90 years ago, when as he was building the Nazi Party's propaganda machine. The Nazi movement, he pointed out, was "not meant to constitute an organization of the contented and satisfied, but to embrace those tormented by suffering, those without peace, the unhappy and the discontented."
In Europe, alt-right and far-right political parties often outdo the mainstream political parties on social media. Germany's Alternative für Deutschland has more Facebook followers than Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party of Germany combined. In France, the far-right National Front has more than 400,000 followers, while the Socialist Party has less than 50,000. In the United States, racists were able to inject themselves into the recent elections through fake news, threats, and virulent social media campaigns.
So, how do we address this problem? For some, the answer is shutting down the offending websites and driving extremists off social media. Such censorship is a straightforward response, but not necessarily effective. Twitter, for instance, suspended 360,000 accounts in 2015-16 that threatened or promoted terrorist activities. In accordance with its guidelines, Facebook prohibits and removes hate speech and bans terrorist and criminal organizations. Yet extremists continue to find space on social media.
Closing down ISIS accounts is a bit like a whack-a-mole game. Once one site is shut down, another appears. Recruiting propaganda no longer comes from a single centralized location, but is disseminated via many points throughout the world. ISIS propagandists understand that even if the jihadist group is defeated on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, they can still recruit and incite terrorist actions without occupying a single bit of physical territory. While few free-speech advocates would contest a decision to shut down accounts that openly advocate terrorism or killing, where should the line be drawn? Should sites that promote "radical Islam" be shut down, even if they don't explicitly advocate violence? How about videos that show marketplaces, amusement parks or schools in ISIS-held territory? What about sites that show happy, ethnically-homogeneous families coupled with appealing slogans about the beauty of their homeland?
And who should determine the parameters for unacceptable content in the digital realm? Some governments, for instance, propose prohibiting individuals or groups from using the Internet if they upset the social order or harm the public interest. Such broad definitions of criminality could be abused by authorities eager to shut down opposition. Some social media companies, such as Facebook, argue that counter-speech on their platform can be a more effective tool in addressing extremism than censorship alone. This line of reasoning encourages people to respond to extremist narratives with their own counter-messages. In this way social media strengthens the marketplace of ideas without endangering freedom of speech. Today many online companies are developing handbooks and toolkits for groups combating extremism online. Just as there is no single path to radicalization, there is no single path to stopping extremism. In addition to curbing or countering dangerous speech, there must be a strong educational response. Audiences, particularly younger ones, need to learn how to recognize and deconstruct propaganda and to become critical consumers of information. This is not a new idea. American educators in the late 1930s urged students be taught how to discern fact from falsehood in the media. Classes in propaganda analysis encouraged pupils to adopt a healthy skepticism toward information, rather than cynicism, and to promote religious, racial, and ethnic tolerance at a time when democratic values were being threatened by Fascism, Nazism, and Communism.
Such "consumer education" is especially important now. A recent Stanford University study concluded that even digital-savvy students in U.S. middle schools, high schools, and colleges are unable to distinguish between real and false information on the Internet and social media and are easily duped. Using algorithms to recognize fake news or hate speech won't solve this problem entirely, nor will hiring inspectors to sift through the postings of 1.8 billion Facebook users. Education must be part of the solution.
There are no simple solutions to countering online extremism. Nor is it just the responsibility of social media companies or governments to act. Extremism is a global problem that requires a sustained global response from concerned individuals, communities, and governments.