When it comes to online extremism, Big Tech is still our main problem
Over the past two months, lawmakers in the UK and Europe have introduced a number of major new bills aimed at curbing the malicious role that Big Tech plays in the spread of extremist and terrorist content online, writes Counter Extremism Executive Director Project David Ibsen.
In this new legislative climate, social media giants such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, who for years have been complacent, if not deliberately negligent, in policing their platforms, are finally beginning to come under pressure. Unsurprisingly, their belated efforts to appease governments through self-regulatory initiatives such as Digital Trust and Safety Partnership are already giving way to a search for scapegoats.
Lately, Big Tech advocates have begun to promote the idea that extremist and terrorist content online remains an issue solely for smaller social media sites and alternative encrypted platforms. While tackling extremism and terrorism on smaller and alternative sites is certainly worth getting ahead of, the overall narrative here is more than a little convenient for Silicon Valley and flawed in a number of crucial respects.
The spread of extremist and terrorist material remains a big problem for Big Tech. In the first place, we are not yet anywhere near the promised land of a mainstream social media environment free of extremist messaging. Far from Big Tech leading the way in content moderation, a study of media responsibility published in February of this year found that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are being significantly outpaced by smaller platforms in their efforts to eliminate harmful posts.
In the same month, CEP researchers discovered an extensive cache of ISIS content on Facebook, including executions, exhortations to commit acts of violence, and combat footage, which had been completely ignored by moderators.
This week, with rates of antisemitic violence surging across the US and Europe, CEP has once again identified explicit neo-Nazi content across a host of mainstream platforms including YouTube, Facebook-owned Instagram, and Twitter.
Secondly, even in an imagined future where extremist communications take place primarily through decentralised platforms, extremist groups would still be reliant on some form of connection to mainstream outlets to grow their ideological support base and recruit new members.
Every story of radicalisation starts somewhere and regulating Big Tech is the greatest step we could possibly take to prevent ordinary citizens from being drawn down extremist rabbit holes.
And while dangerous and hateful content can flow more freely on unmoderated sites, extremists and terrorists still desire access to large, mainstream platforms. The near ubiquitous nature of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others offer extremists the ability to reach broader audiences—to either terrify or recruit as many people as possible. For instance, Christchurch killer Brenton Tarrant, who took to live streaming his atrocities on Facebook Live, had his attack video re-uploaded more than 1.5 million times.
Whether it’s jihadists seeking to ignite a worldwide caliphate or neo-Nazis trying to start a race war, the goal of terrorism today is to capture attention, inspire like-minded extremists, and destabilise societies to the greatest extent possible.
To this end, the amplificatory effects of major social media channels simply cannot be underestimated. It is one thing for an extremist to communicate to a small group of ideological cohorts on an obscure encrypted network. It is something entirely different for them to share their propaganda with hundreds of millions of people on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.
It would be no exaggeration to say that preventing the latter from happening through effective regulation of Big Tech would help to fundamentally tackle modern terrorism and prevent extremists and terrorists from attaining a mainstream audience.
The increasing decentralisation of online extremism is an important issue that lawmakers must deal with, but anyone who brings it up to try and obscure the importance of regulating Big Tech simply does not have the public’s best interest at heart.
David Ibsen serves as executive director for the Counter Extremism Project (CEP), which works to combat the growing threat of extremist ideology particularly by exposing extremists’ misuse of financial, business, and communications networks. CEP uses the latest communications and technological tools to identify and counter extremist ideology and recruitment online.
EU boosts access to electricity in the Virunga area in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
The Commission has announced an additional €20 million to finance a new power plant in Rwanguba, that will provide a further 15 Megawatt of electricity. The European Union's rapid response to the urgent environmental crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has helped to restore up to 96% of the power lines and 35% of the water pipes damaged in Goma due to the eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano on 22 May. This has allowed half a million people to access drinking water, and to have electricity in two important hospitals.
Speaking on the European Development Days panel on Virunga, International Partnerships Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen said: “Access to electricity saves lives and is crucial for economic and human development in this vulnerable region. This is why the European Union reacted rapidly to support the population affected by the recent Nyiragongo volcanic eruption. With this additional €20m, we will increase supply, more households and schools and provide opportunities for sustainable growth.”
The EU supports the construction of hydroelectric power plants and distribution networks around the National Park of Virunga, already supplying 70% of Goma's electricity needs. Power cuts are life-threatening for the local population as they lead to water shortage, the spread of diseases such as cholera, increased inequalities and poverty.
The Virunga National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The EU is its longest and most important donor, supporting the National Park since 1988.
Since 2014, the EU has supported ongoing actions with a total of €112 million in grants. The EU's financial contributions support the day-to-day operation of the Park, inclusive growth and sustainable development initiatives in the area, the hydro-electrification of North Kivu and the development of sustainable agricultural practices. These activities have contributed to creating 2,500 direct jobs, 4,200 jobs in connected small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and 15,000 indirect jobs in value chains.
In December 2020, the European Union, environmentalist and Academy Award ® - winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio, and Re:wild (former Global Wildlife Conservation) launched an initiative to safeguard the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This type of initiative exemplifies the EU's commitment to delivering the EU's Green Deal around the world, in cooperation with key players such as Re:wild whose mission is to conserve the diversity of life on earth.
The EU's integrated approach links nature conservation with economic development while improving the living standards of local populations. It contributes to prevent poaching and supports sustainable forest management, including efforts to combat illegal logging and deforestation. Virunga National Park is already well-known as the most biodiverse protected area in Africa, notably with its wild mountain gorillas. In parallel, the EU invests in value chains such as chocolate, coffee, chia seeds, papaya enzymes for the cosmetic industry, making sure that resources reach small community-based farms and cooperatives while promoting inclusive growth and sustainable development.
Emerging stronger from the pandemic: Acting on the early lessons learned
The European Commission has presented a Communication on the early lessons learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic over the past 18 months and building on them to improve action at EU and national level. This will help to better anticipate public health risks and enhance contingency planning leading to swifter and more effective joint responses at all levels.
Ten lessons focus on what has to be improved and what can be done better in the future. The ten lessons are not exhaustive, but provide a first snapshot of what needs to be acted upon now for the benefit of all Europeans:
- Faster detection and better responses require a robust global health surveillance and an improved European pandemic information gathering system. The EU should lead efforts to design a new robust global surveillance system based on comparable data. A new and improved European pandemic information gathering system will be launched in 2021.
- Clearer and more coordinated scientific advice would facilitate policy decisions and public communication. The EU should appoint a European Chief Epidemiologist and a corresponding governance structure by the end of 2021.
- Enhanced preparedness requires constant investments, scrutiny and reviews. The European Commission should prepare an annual State of Preparedness Report.
- Emergency tools need to be ready faster and easier to activate. The EU should establish a framework for the activation of an EU Pandemic State of Emergency and a toolbox for crisis situations.
- Coordinated measures should become a reflex for Europe. The European Health Union should be adopted swiftly, before the end of the year and coordination and working methods should be strengthened between institutions.
- Public-private partnerships and stronger supply chains are needed to ensure the flow of critical equipment and medicines. A Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA) should be operational by early 2022 and a Health Important Project of Common European Interest should be set up as soon as possible to enable breakthrough innovation in pharmaceuticals. The EU FAB facility, should ensure that the EU has enough “ever-warm” capacity to produce 500–700 million vaccine doses per year, with half of these doses to be ready in the first 6 months of a pandemic.
- A pan-European approach is essential to making clinical research faster, broader and more effective. A large-scale EU platform for multi-centre clinical trials should be established.
- The capacity to cope in a pandemic depends on continuous and increased investment in health systems. Member States should be supported to strengthen the overall resilience of health care systems as part of their recovery and resilience investments.
- Pandemic prevention, preparedness and response is a global priority for Europe. The EU should continue leading the global response, notably through COVAX, and strengthening the global health security architecture by leading on strengthening the World Health Organization. Pandemic preparedness partnerships with key partners should also be developed.
- A more coordinated and sophisticated approach to tackling misinformation and disinformation should be developed.
This report on the early lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic will feed the leaders' discussion at the June European Council. It will be presented to the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union, and the Commission will follow up with concrete deliverables in the second half of 2021.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: “The EU's comprehensive response to the pandemic has been unprecedented in scale and delivered in record time, proving the importance of working jointly in Europe. Together, we have achieved what no EU Member State could have done alone. But we have also learned what worked well and where we could do better in future pandemics. We must now turn these lessons into changes.”
Promoting our European Way of Life Vice President Margaritis Schinas said: “Despite the fact that health policy at European level is still in its nascent years, the EU's response to the pandemic was ample, and has included a wide range of unprecedented initiatives that were designed and delivered in record time. We acted with speed, ambition and coherence. This was achieved also thanks to the unprecedented solidarity demonstrated amongst EU institutions that ensured a united EU response. This is one great lesson we must continue to build on. But there is no time, nor room for complacency. Today, we are identifying specific areas where we already know more can and should be done to secure a more effective health response in the future. This crisis can be a catalyst for furthering European integration in the areas where it is most needed.”
Health and Food Safety Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said: “An unprecedented public health crisis needs to be turned into an opportunity to build back stronger. The key lesson learnt from the COVID-19 crisis is the need to transform the ad hoc solutions that were used to deal with the crisis into permanent structures that will allow us to be better prepared in the future. We need to have a strong European Health Union in place as soon as possible. Time cannot be lost when faced with a public health threat or another pandemic. Emergency action must become structural capacity. Solidarity, responsibility, common effort at European level for the threats that touch all of us equally is what will sustain us through this crisis and the next.”
As the crisis started unfolding, the EU developed a wide range of health policy responses, exemplified by the common approach to vaccines through the EU Vaccines Strategy and initiatives across a range of other policies. The Green Lanes initiative kept food and medicines flowing throughout the Single Market. A common approach to assessing infection rates in different regions made testing and quarantining much more consistent. And more recently, EU Digital COVID Certificates were agreed on and implemented in record time, paving the way for the safe resumption of tourism and travel this summer, and beyond. At the same time, the EU took decisive action to tackle the economic fallout of the pandemic. This drew heavily on the experience and arrangements built to address previous challenges and crises in the economic and financial area.
However, these successes do not mask the difficulties that were encountered, notably on the scaling up of manufacturing and production capacities, partly due to a lack of a permanently integrated approach to research, development and production that slowed down the initial availability of vaccines. While this has since been addressed, longer term solutions are needed for mitigating future detrimental health events or crises.
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