There’s a new tool to take down terrorism images online — but social media companies are wary of it

The Washington Post reports: President Obama suggested that extremist information spread online inspired a Florida man to commit the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history at a gay nightclub in Orlando last week — the latest in a long line of terrorist attacks in which Islamist propaganda played some role in radicalizing the assailant.

Now a Dartmouth College researcher and a nonprofit group say they have created a technology that can help Internet companies instantly detect images and videos generated by terrorists and their supporters and remove them from their platforms.

It is, they say, a way to cleanse popular online sites of gory videos and propaganda from the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS and Daesh, that can serve to incite and inspire people to commit acts of violence.

“If you could search out the beheading videos, or the picture of the ISIS fighter all in black carrying the Daesh flag across the sands of Syria, if you could do it with video and audio, you’d be doing something big,” said Mark Wallace, chief executive of the Counter Extremism Project (CEP), a nonpartisan policy group. “I believe it’s a game-changer.”

The White House has signaled its support. “We welcome the launch of initiatives such as the Counter Extremism Project’s National Office for Reporting Extremism (NORex) that enables companies to address terrorist activity on their platforms and better respond to the threat posed by terrorists’ activities online,” said Lisa Monaco, President Obama’s assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism.

But a number of major social media companies are wary of the idea. They say there is no clear consensus in the United States, and globally, as to what constitutes a terrorist image, and they might end up expunging material posted by researchers or media organizations. And, they say, once a database is created, governments around the world will place additional data requests on them — and some countries’ will probably demand the removal of legitimate political content under the guise of fighting terrorism. [Continue reading…]

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Zeynep Tufekci: How the Internet has made social change easy to organize, hard to win

 

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Looking for ISIS where the light is

The New York Times reports: After Orlando and San Bernardino and Paris, there is new urgency to understand the signs that can precede acts of terrorism. And with the Islamic State’s prolific use of social media, terrorism experts and government agencies continually search for clues in posts and Twitter messages that appear to promote the militants’ cause.

A physicist may not seem like an obvious person to study such activity. But for months, Neil Johnson, a physicist at the University of Miami, led a team that created a mathematical model to sift order from the chaotic pro-terrorism online universe.

In a study published Thursday in the journal Science, Dr. Johnson and Miami colleagues searched for pro-Islamic State posts each day from mid-2014 until August 2015, mining mentions of beheadings and blood baths in multiple languages on Vkontakte, a Russia-based social media service that is the largest European equivalent to Facebook. Ultimately, they devised an equation that tries to explain the activity of Islamic State sympathizers online and might, they say, eventually help predict attacks that are about to happen. [Continue reading…]

This is a classic example of the ‘streetlight effect.’

To anticipate acts of terrorism being initiated by ISIS, other terrorist groups or individuals, you’d need access to all forms of communication and planning. That means gathering information from a field much wider than social media and even wider than digital communications. What it requires is omniscience. Currently — and anytime in the foreseeable future — omniscience is unavailable, unlike grandiose propositions which pop up all the time.

When it comes to the art of the possible, too often the question that researchers seem to be preoccupied with is not whether they can accomplish their research goals but whether they can secure their funding needs.

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Killing twice for ISIS and saying so live on Facebook

The New York Times reports: He stabbed an off-duty police officer and left him bleeding to death on his own doorstep. He forced his way inside the home and stabbed and killed the officer’s female companion. He then sat down and videotaped himself live on Facebook declaring allegiance to the Islamic State, according to the French law enforcement authorities.

Sitting just behind him was the couple’s son, a terrified 3-year-old boy, of whom Larossi Abballa, the killer, said dismissively, “I have not decided what to do with him,” according to David Thomson, a French journalist for Radio France Internationale and the author of a book on jihadists who saw Mr. Abballa’s online posts before they were taken down.

The events that unfolded between about 8 p.m. and midnight on Monday — when elite police forces broke into the house in the small town of Magnanville, fatally shot Mr. Abballa, 25, and rescued the boy — were the second time within 48 hours in which a person appearing to act alone claimed to kill in the name of the Islamic State.

In the attacks in both Magnanville and Orlando, Fla., the killers had more than just brushed up against the authorities before, in what has become a distressingly familiar pattern — from the set of attacks in Paris in November, to those in Brussels in March and beyond. The Orlando gunman, Omar Mateen, had been interviewed twice by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for his possible links to terrorism, and Mr. Abballa had been convicted for having links to a terrorist network and served about two years in jail before being released.

Further complicating the job of protecting Western nations are governments’ dual goal of preserving civil liberties while trying to make people feel secure.

The attack in France was shocking not only to neighbors in Magnanville, about 35 miles from Paris, but across the country because it underscored that extremist attacks can happen in the most ordinary places, above all in those where people believe they are safe.

Mr. Abballa’s Facebook post from Monday night made clear that he wanted to terrify and destroy those he deemed “unbelievers,” people he had come to hate. He also wanted to encourage other lone wolves to do the same.

“It’s super simple,” he said, looking into the camera. “It’s enough to wait for them in front of their offices; don’t give them any respite. Know this, whether you are a policeman or a journalist, you will never feel calm again. One will wait for you in front of your homes. This is what you have earned.”

Boasting that he had “just killed a policeman and I just killed his wife,” he called on fellow believers to give priority to killing “police, prison guards, journalists.” He specifically named several writers and journalists, adding rappers to the list because, he said, they “are the allies of Satan.”

Even more chillingly, he warned that jihadists had “reserved some other surprises for the Euro; I am not going to say more.’’

“The Euro will be a cemetery,” he said, referring to the Euro 2016 soccer tournament being played over the next several weeks in 10 French cities.

It was unclear whether Mr. Abballa had specific knowledge of a potential attack on the matches or the crowds gathered for them.

The version of the video released by the Islamic State’s Amaq news agency was trimmed by a couple of minutes to omit images of the boy and Mr. Abballa’s references to him. On Twitter, opinion was divided between those who thought the images of a defenseless child were tasteless even by the standards of the Islamic State’s hardened propagandists and those who speculated that the extremist news agency did not want to show Mr. Abballa as unwilling to kill a child. [Continue reading…]

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In the depths of the digital age

Edward Mendelson writes: Every technological revolution coincides with changes in what it means to be a human being, in the kinds of psychological borders that divide the inner life from the world outside. Those changes in sensibility and consciousness never correspond exactly with changes in technology, and many aspects of today’s digital world were already taking shape before the age of the personal computer and the smartphone. But the digital revolution suddenly increased the rate and scale of change in almost everyone’s lives. Elizabeth Eisenstein’s exhilaratingly ambitious historical study The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979) may overstate its argument that the press was the initiating cause of the great changes in culture in the early sixteenth century, but her book pointed to the many ways in which new means of communication can amplify slow, preexisting changes into an overwhelming, transforming wave.

In The Changing Nature of Man (1956), the Dutch psychiatrist J.H. van den Berg described four centuries of Western life, from Montaigne to Freud, as a long inward journey. The inner meanings of thought and actions became increasingly significant, while many outward acts became understood as symptoms of inner neuroses rooted in everyone’s distant childhood past; a cigar was no longer merely a cigar. A half-century later, at the start of the digital era in the late twentieth century, these changes reversed direction, and life became increasingly public, open, external, immediate, and exposed.

Virginia Woolf’s serious joke that “on or about December 1910 human character changed” was a hundred years premature. Human character changed on or about December 2010, when everyone, it seemed, started carrying a smartphone. For the first time, practically anyone could be found and intruded upon, not only at some fixed address at home or at work, but everywhere and at all times. Before this, everyone could expect, in the ordinary course of the day, some time at least in which to be left alone, unobserved, unsustained and unburdened by public or familial roles. That era now came to an end.

Many probing and intelligent books have recently helped to make sense of psychological life in the digital age. Some of these analyze the unprecedented levels of surveillance of ordinary citizens, others the unprecedented collective choice of those citizens, especially younger ones, to expose their lives on social media; some explore the moods and emotions performed and observed on social networks, or celebrate the Internet as a vast aesthetic and commercial spectacle, even as a focus of spiritual awe, or decry the sudden expansion and acceleration of bureaucratic control.

The explicit common theme of these books is the newly public world in which practically everyone’s lives are newly accessible and offered for display. The less explicit theme is a newly pervasive, permeable, and transient sense of self, in which much of the experience, feeling, and emotion that used to exist within the confines of the self, in intimate relations, and in tangible unchanging objects — what William James called the “material self” — has migrated to the phone, to the digital “cloud,” and to the shape-shifting judgments of the crowd. [Continue reading…]

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Mocking Putin got me sent to Twitter gulag

@DarthPutinKGB writes: I run the @DarthPutinKGB “parody” account. The inverted commas are over the word parody for a reason. An account parodying any part of the Kremlin will, by definition, sound almost identical to a verified Kremlin account. From passing homophobic laws while posing for homoerotic photo shoots, to putting dead people on trial for crimes they got murdered for exposing, to denying and then later admitting the presence of their armed forces in numerous conflicts, when it comes to the Kremlin, it can be hard to tell reality from parody.

The account portrays Putin as a maniacal, sinister villain bent on world domination who thinks nothing of murdering those who irritate him while he drops vodka (and real) bombs. He also thinks he is God’s gift to women but is in fact that drunk you can find in any bar on a Friday night who makes women’s skin crawl as he desperately tries to get laid.

Darth Putin is also a pathological liar who would deny it snows in Russia with a straight face if he needed to. Beneath it all, deep down he knows he’s just an emperor currently in the late stages of a massive wardrobe malfunction that he prays no one will eventually notice. Maybe this is why some struggle to tell if it’s parody or not. [Continue reading…]

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How ISIS is winning the media war

Mohammed A. Salih writes: Faced with what has been often described as the world’s most resourceful and sophisticated terror organization, Iraq’s news media outlets have stumbled in how to cover the Islamic State (IS). The country’s news media appear to have unwillingly assisted IS in disseminating some of its gruesome propaganda releases, thus enabling it to achieve broader reach and possibly even impact.

IS brutality and its dramatic expansion in Iraq over the last couple of years has posed a major challenge for Iraqi media outlets. Is covering the group’s activities a legitimate public service or an extension of its own jihadi propaganda?

While media editors and managers at major Iraqi news outlets are aware of the ethical debate surrounding the use of propaganda materials by terrorist groups, and especially graphic content, a combination of political agendas and lack of rigorous editorial oversight appear to hamper the translation of that knowledge into practice. [Continue reading…]

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Effort to expose Russia’s ‘troll army’ draws vicious retaliation

The New York Times reports: Seeking to shine some light into the dark world of Internet trolls, a journalist with Finland’s national broadcaster asked members of her audience to share their experience of encounters with Russia’s “troll army,” a raucous and often venomous force of online agitators.

The response was overwhelming, though not in the direction that the journalist, Jessikka Aro, had hoped.

As she expected, she received some feedback from people who had clashed with aggressively pro-Russian voices online. But she was taken aback, and shaken, by a vicious retaliatory campaign of harassment and insults against her and her work by those same pro-Russian voices.

“Everything in my life went to hell thanks to the trolls,” said Ms. Aro, a 35-year-old investigative reporter with the social media division of Finland’s state broadcaster, Yle Kioski.

Abusive online harassment is hardly limited to pro-Russian Internet trolls. Ukraine and other countries at odds with the Kremlin also have legions of aggressive avengers on social media.

But pro-Russian voices have become such a noisy and disruptive presence that both NATO and the European Union have set up special units to combat what they see as a growing threat not only to civil discourse but to the well-being of Europe’s democratic order and even to its security.

This “information war,” said Rastislav Kacer, a veteran diplomat who served as Slovakia’s ambassador to Washington and at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels, “is just part of a bigger struggle.” While not involving bloodshed, he added, it “is equally as dangerous as more conventional hostile action.” [Continue reading…]

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Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Microsoft back EU hate speech rules

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Reuters reports: Facebook, Twitter, Google’s YouTube and Microsoft on Tuesday agreed to an EU code of conduct to tackle online hate speech within 24 hours in Europe.

EU governments have been trying in recent months to get social platforms to crack down on rising online racism following the refugee crisis and terror attacks, with some even threatening action against the companies.

As part of the pledge agreed with the European Commission, the web giants will review the majority of valid requests for removal of illegal hate speech in less than 24 hours and remove or disable access to the content if necessary.

They will also strengthen their cooperation with civil society organisations who help flag hateful content when it goes online and promote “counter-narratives” to hate speech.

“The recent terror attacks have reminded us of the urgent need to address illegal online hate speech. Social media is unfortunately one of the tools that terrorist groups use to radicalise young people,” EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova said.

Germany got Google, Facebook and Twitter to agree to delete hate speech from their websites within 24 hours last year and even launched an investigation into the European head of Facebook over its alleged failure to remove racist hate speech. [Continue reading…]

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The camaraderie of outrage

Harambe

“The killing of a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo in order to save a child who fell in its enclosure has sparked nationwide outrage,” reports CBS News.

I share the outrage.

I happen to be among those who believe that the incarceration of wild animals for the entertainment of sightseers, cannot be justified. It does little to elevate the consciousness of the people and even less the well-being of the captives. The protection of endangered species requires first and foremost the protection of endangered habitats.

Upon seeing the news of the gorilla’s death, like many others, I also thought that if a four-year boy could even get into a situation like this, there had to be negligence on the part of parents, bystanders, and/or the zoo operators. Likewise, the decision to shoot and kill the 17-year-old gorilla, Harambe (a Swahili name which means, “all pull together”) seemed very questionable.

Among the outraged voices showing up on Facebook, the most venomous attacks have been directed at Michelle Gregg, the boy’s mother.

Jan Dadaista Subert:

The crappy mother should have gotten shot instead, not the poor innocent gorilla!

Andrew Weprin:

Michelle Gregg says, “God protected my child until the authorities were able to get to him.” No, Harambe protected your child after you & God failed to stop him from climbing into the enclosure! And innocent Harambe ended up dead for his efforts, shot with a bullet that would have been better spent on you, for failing to look after your own child and being the cause of all this!

The creator of a Facebook page, Justice For Harambe (which has already received over 60,000 likes), propagated the claim that Gregg was planning to sue to zoo, and yet when asked to support this claim with some evidence simply said: “Educated guess.” The page’s stated objective is: “We wish to see charges brought against those responsible!!”

The outrage directed at Gregg has prompted a smaller wave of outrage coming from those who underline the fact that even when under the supervision of the most attentive of parents, small children do have a talent for slipping out of sight.

Meanwhile, the United Nations refugee agency announced on Sunday that at least 700 people are believed to have drowned in the Mediterranean this week as tens of thousands of refugees continue to seek safety in Europe.

The latest chapter in the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II has prompted very little outrage on this side of the Atlantic.

For observers of social media in the U.S., it’s hard to avoid concluding that the life of a gorilla is commonly regarded here as being more precious than the lives of countless human beings.

Although to some extent it’s heartening that this much concern is being shown about the premature death of a gorilla, it’s disturbing that over the last year and longer there has been such widespread indifference shown towards millions of people in desperate need.

Is there really such a compassion deficit in America, or does this reveal more about the psychology of rage?

My guess is that among those now seeking justice for Harambe, prior to this weekend many had not paid a great deal of interest in the welfare of western lowland gorillas.

The guiding emotions here were outrage at what seemed like the unnecessary loss of an innocent life, and a certain sympathy with fellow primates which all children feel and most adults have learned to sublimate.

The great apes fascinate us because on some level we recognize them as kin. We don’t just look at them; we see them with reflective awareness looking at us.

Yet why would a sense of kinship be able to extend outside our own species while falling short among other members of the human race?

What is at play here seems to have less to do with who or what we identify with than it does with the pathways that facilitate our connections.

It turns out that in the age of social media, outrage has become such a potent force because it allows strangers to bond.

Teddy Wayne writes:

A 2013 study, from Beihang University in Beijing, of Weibo, a Twitter-like site, found that anger is the emotion that spreads the most easily over social media. Joy came in a distant second. The main difference, said Ryan Martin, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, who studies anger, is that although we tend to share the happiness only of people we are close to, we are willing to join in the rage of strangers. As the study suggests, outrage is lavishly rewarded on social media, whether through supportive comments, retweets or Facebook likes. People prone to Internet outrage are looking for validation, Professor Martin said. “They want to hear that others share it,” he said, “because they feel they’re vindicated and a little less lonely and isolated in their belief.”

Harambe’s death pulled strangers together in their shared anger. The sad and stern face of a silverback resonated across a population which, struggling to find common ground through things we can affirm, finds it much more easily in our discontent.

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China’s scary lesson to the world: Censoring the Internet works

The Washington Post reports: First there was the Berlin Wall. Now there is the Great Firewall of China, not a physical barrier preventing people from leaving, but a virtual one, preventing information harmful to the Communist Party from entering the country.

Just as one fell, so will the other be eventually dismantled, because information, like people, cannot be held back forever.

Or so the argument goes.

But try telling that to Beijing. Far from knocking down the world’s largest system of censorship, China in fact is moving ever more confidently in the opposite direction, strengthening the wall’s legal foundations, closing breaches and reinforcing its control of the Web behind the wall.

Defensive no more about its censorship record, China is trumpeting its vision of “Internet sovereignty” as a model for the world and is moving to make it a legal reality at home. At the same time — confounding Western skeptics — the Internet is nonetheless thriving in China, with nearly 700 million users, putting almost 1 in 4 of the world’s online population behind the Great Firewall.

China is the world’s leader in e-commerce, with digital retail sales volume double that of the United States and accounting for a staggering 40 percent of the global total, according to digital business research company eMarketer. Last year, it also boasted four of the top 10 Internet companies in the world ranked by market capitalization, according to the data website Statista, including e-commerce giant Alibaba, social-media and gaming company Tencent and search specialists Baidu. [Continue reading…]

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How Facebooks taps into our lack of imagination

Frank Bruni writes: Those who’ve been raising alarms about Facebook are right: Almost every minute that we spend on our smartphones and tablets and laptops, thumbing through favorite websites and scrolling through personalized feeds, we’re pointed toward foregone conclusions. We’re pressured to conform.

But unseen puppet masters on Mark Zuckerberg’s payroll aren’t to blame. We’re the real culprits. When it comes to elevating one perspective above all others and herding people into culturally and ideologically inflexible tribes, nothing that Facebook does to us comes close to what we do to ourselves.

I’m talking about how we use social media in particular and the Internet in general — and how we let them use us. They’re not so much agents as accomplices, new tools for ancient impulses, part of “a long sequence of technological innovations that enable us to do what we want,” noted the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who wrote the 2012 best seller “The Righteous Mind,” when we spoke last week.

“And one of the things we want is to spend more time with people who think like us and less with people who are different,” Haidt added. “The Facebook effect isn’t trivial. But it’s catalyzing or amplifying a tendency that was already there.”

By “the Facebook effect” he didn’t mean the possibility, discussed extensively over recent weeks, that Facebook manipulates its menu of “trending” news to emphasize liberal views and sources. That menu is just one facet of Facebook.

More prevalent for many users are the posts we see from friends and from other people and groups we follow on the network, and this information is utterly contingent on choices we ourselves make. If we seek out, “like” and comment on angry missives from Bernie Sanders supporters, we’ll be confronted with more angry missives from more Sanders supporters. If we banish such outbursts, those dispatches disappear.

That’s the crucial dynamic, algorithm or whatever you want to call it. That’s the trap and curse of our lives online.

The Internet isn’t rigged to give us right or left, conservative or liberal — at least not until we rig it that way. It’s designed to give us more of the same, whatever that same is: one sustained note from the vast and varied music that it holds, one redundant fragrance from a garden of infinite possibility. [Continue reading…]

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Chinese officials ‘create 488 million bogus social media posts a year’

The Guardian reports: The Chinese government is fabricating almost 490m social media posts a year in order to distract the public from criticising or questioning its rule, according to a study.

China’s “Fifty Cent Party” – a legion of freelance online trolls so-named because they are believed to be paid 50 cents a post – has long been blamed for flooding the Chinese internet with pro-regime messages designed to defend and promote the ruling Communist party.

However, the study by Harvard University researchers (pdf) claims many of those comments are not posted by ordinary citizens, as previously thought, but by civil servants who double as online stooges.

An analysis of nearly 43,800 posts found that 99.3% were the work of government employees working for more than 200 agencies, including tax and social security and human resources bureaux. [Continue reading…]

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For Twitter, ties to CIA create worse ‘optics’ than links to Russian government

L Gordon Crovitz writes: Silicon Valley’s hostility to U.S. intelligence and law enforcement reached a new low last week when Twitter rejected the Central Intelligence Agency as a customer for data based on its tweets — while continuing to serve an entity controlled by Vladimir Putin.

The Wall Street Journal broke the news that Twitter decided U.S. intelligence services could no longer buy services from Dataminr, which has a unique relationship with Twitter. Dataminr is the only company Twitter allows to have access to its full stream of hundreds of millions of daily tweets and sell the resulting intelligence to customers. Dataminr applies “big data” algorithms to identify unusual developments in real time. Customers who can profit from knowing about events instantly, such as hedge funds and news publishers, pay a hefty price for the alerts.

For the past two years, Dataminr provided its service to the CIA under a pilot program. The CIA and Dataminr then negotiated a contract to continue the service, but sources say Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey vetoed the contract at the last minute because he objects to the “optics” of continuing to help intelligence agencies. It’s unclear what happens to a small agreement Dataminr previously made with the Department of Homeland Security. With the new policy dictated by Twitter, Dataminr should drop the claim on its website that it includes “clients in the public sector, providing information first when there are lives at stake.”

Among the customers still getting the Dataminr alerts is RT, the broadcaster created and funded by the Russian government. Vladimir Putin has said that the government runs RT to “try to break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams.” RT disclosed it is a Dataminr customer in its news account of Twitter barring the CIA. Agents of Russia’s Federal Security Service, formerly known as the KGB, have full access via RT to the alerts now being denied to the CIA. [Continue reading…]

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How ISIS uses the internet: Talking on Telegram and sending viruses to their enemies

BuzzFeed reports: Abu Majad figured that when ISIS came for him, it would be with a knife on a dark street, or a bomb planted on his car. The 34-year-old had been living in southern Turkey since fleeing Syria nearly three years ago and knew that his outspoken stance against ISIS — online and in his hometown in northern Syria — had put him in the terrorist group’s crosshairs. What he wasn’t expecting was to wake up on the morning of March 29 to a virus planted by ISIS within a seemingly innocuous email attachment.

“Everything about this looked like a real email, sent from the admin of my own website. It looked safe, but it was not. They were trying to get my login information, my passwords. They were trying to get things that could have put real lives in danger,” said Abu Majad, who asked that his nickname be used instead of his real name to protect himself and his remaining family in Syria from reprisal attacks by ISIS. “It was very clever. When I saw it I thought to myself, Shit, now they are professional hackers?”

Cybersecurity experts and intelligence agencies who monitor ISIS say the malware is just one more sign that ISIS is growing more sophisticated in its use of the internet.

“I don’t think it is far-fetched to say that the internet is a major reason why ISIS is so successful, and so worrying, as far as global terror movements go,” said one U.S. intelligence officer, who spoke to BuzzFeed News in Washington, D.C., and asked not to be named as he wasn’t authorized to speak to the press. “They have always been ‘good’ at the internet, at the strategy of how they use it. Now they are smarter at the internet too.” [Continue reading…]

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