Police Chief Accuses Mainstream Media Of 'Driving Acts Of Terrorism'
By Zak Doffman
After a week of headlines on the role social media plays in promoting terrorism, the U.K.’s Head of Counter-Terrorism policing, Neil Basu, issued an open letter yesterday turning the spotlight on the mainstream media and their hypocrisy: “The same media companies who have lambasted social media platforms for not acting fast enough to remove extremist content,” he wrote, “are simultaneously publishing uncensored [ISIS] propaganda on their websites, or making the rambling ‘manifestos’ of crazed killers available for download.”
Facebook has borne the brunt of social media criticism since the tragic events in Christchurch, reporting on Tuesday that the attack was viewed less than 200 times in real-time and then by a further 4,000 people before they removed the footage from the site. The company also reported that they had removed 1.5 million uploads.
Meanwhile, a YouTube spokesperson told the Guardian that “the volume of related videos uploaded to YouTube in the 24 hours after the attack was unprecedented both in scale and speed – at times as fast as a new upload every second. In response we took a number of steps, including automatically rejecting any footage of the violence, temporarily suspending the ability to sort or filter searches by upload date, and making sure searches on this event pulled up results from authoritative news sources.”
And as the social media companies have scrambled, the mainstream media companies have reported every development. Some newspapers published clips from Christchurch online, even as the social media networks sought to delete them from their sites. “A piece of extremist propaganda might reach tens of thousands of people naturally,” Mr. Basu said, “through their own channels or networks, but the moment a national newspaper publishes it in full then it has a potential reach of tens of millions.”
Mr. Basu cited the example of London’s Finsbury Park attack in 2017, where the person responsible was “driven to an act of terror by far-right messaging he found mostly on mainstream media, not even having to plumb the depths of social media or the dark web to find the material that ultimately radicalized him. Surely it’s time to have a sensible conversation about how to report terrorism in a way that doesn’t help terrorists.”
Beyond social media
Given that acts of terrorism are fueled by propaganda, the assertion that it is the mainstream media which is more likely than social media to feed such hatred is a material claim: ”The reality is that every terrorist we have dealt with has sought inspiration from the propaganda of others, and when they can’t find it on Facebook, YouTube, Telegram or Twitter they only have to turn on the TV, read the paper or go to one of a myriad of mainstream media websites struggling to compete with those platforms.”
This thirst for publicity has been especially apparent in the wake of the attack in New Zealand, with the combination of live streaming and the online material shared beforehand. The country’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, responded to this hunger for publicity: “He sought many things from his act of terror,” she said, “but one was notoriety – and that is why you will never hear me mention his name.”
This is a sentiment echoed by the husband of U.K. politician Jo Cox, murdered by a rightwing extremist in 2016: “In the two-and-a-half years since my wife Jo died,” he wrote this week in London’s Evening Standard, “I have never uttered the name of the person who killed her. My children have never heard it and it doesn’t appear in the book that I wrote about Jo.”
Fighting on all fronts
Terror investigations are at an all-time high in the U.K, with the parallel threats of Islamic extremism and the rise of the far right. “There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that the two ideologies, both perverse, are feeding each other,” Mr. Basu said last October. “The overriding threat to the UK remains from those inspired by ISIS and the resurgent al-Qaeda, but our operations reflect a much broader range of dangerous ideologies, including very disturbingly rising extreme right-wing activity.”
Clearly, social media is overdue a clean-up, and there have been continual headlines about the lack of regulation and oversight and the seeming inability for the companies to monitor the material published on their sites. “It’s not just the obvious criminal and terrorist content that needs to be removed,” Mr. Basu said. “It’s also the torrent of hate and abuse below a criminal threshold that follows any act of terror, or any attempt to have a reasonable conversation about terrorism.”
As leading social media companies scramble to hire enough moderators to remove the wrong content without in their minds going too far, there are moves to look at the use of AI to help these efforts. But thus far this has just emphasized how difficult the challenge is. New Zealand may have been a wake-up call, it was certainly a chilling indication of how difficult it is to control the flow of information however good the intent. And now, with this letter, the U.K.’s counter-terror chief has cast the net much wider than before, inviting media editors to debate the right approach with survivors and law enforcement agencies.
As with any debate of this kind, the twin pillars of free speech and public interest will come into play. But what Mr. Basu is suggesting is that this blanket override needs to be revisited. “Society needs to look carefully at itself,” he said. “We cannot simply hide behind the mantra of freedom of speech…. Journalists often respond to such claims by talking about what is ‘in the public interest’. I would argue that the safety of citizens is surely the most important ‘public interest’ of all… Surely it’s time to have a sensible conversation about how to report terrorism in a way that doesn’t help terrorists.”
The truth is that a terrorist of any persuasion does not need to visit the dark web or specialist sites in order to feed on or share hatred. In the wake of an atrocity, the notoriety obviously and immediately hits the mainstream. How or whether that can or will ever change remains to be seen. It is genuinely an impossible balancing act.