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Reader's Digest – 24 April 2020

Our weekly review of articles on terrorist and violent extremist use of the internet, counterterrorism, digital rights, and tech policy.

-Terrorist use of the internet

Cumulative extremism online: How moral and strategic aims predict narrative escalation: In a recent book chapter, William Allchorn analyses how the concept of cumulative extremism – how different forms of extremism feed off one another – plays out in the online space. Comparing online patterns amongst Islamist and far-right extremist groups in the UK in the seven days before and after the terrorist attacks in March and June 2017 (when the UK witnessed attacks motivated by both ideologies), Allchorn found little evidence of escalation in the groups’ rhetoric. Instead, he found that groups focused on other topics of importance. According to Allchorn, those “tiny bit counter-intuitive results” are due to the moral norms and strategic logics at play within each group, reflecting their deliberative decisions not to expand on the attacks. Allchorn stresses that these findings are especially important for research and interventions in understanding the mediating effect of ideology on escalation. (Allchorn, CARR, 06.04.2020)

After the coronavirus, terrorism won’t be the same: Terrorist groups across the ideological spectrum are responding differently to the coronavirus outbreak, from painting it as a “divine retribution” to aiming to weaponise it. Governments, on their part, are responding to the pandemic using their counterterrorism capabilities, effectively applying legal definitions of terrorism to prosecute people coughing on others. In this piece, Raffaello Pantucci looks at the state of terrorism after the pandemic. Pantucci draws on the history of violent extremism, distrust of government, and hate crime to tell a cautionary tale of terrorists evolving in “ever more extreme ways” by taking advantage of the pandemic and of the perceived failure in governments’ response to this crisis. (Pantucci, Foreign Policy, 22.04.2020)

Islamist terrorism

Journalists promoted ISIS coronavirus propaganda, they should stop: “ISIS has always been catnip for journalists”, and according to Murtaza Hussain this is all the more relevant in the times of coronavirus. In this article, Hussain dwells on the capacity of IS to capture media attention and exploit it to its own advantage, as well on the media’s recent coverage of the group's reaction to the coronavirus – with some misleading reporting by media on IS advice to its supporters regarding the virus outbreak. Hussain calls for more responsible reporting on the Islamic State’s (IS) discussion of the virus to avoid unnecessary publicity for the terrorist organisation. (Hussain, The Intercept, 19.04.2020)

– To learn more about the importance of responsible media reporting, you can listen to our Tech Against Terrorism Podcast episode on how mainstream media can spread terrorist propaganda. with Kyle Taylor, Executive Director of Hacked Off, and Abdirahim Saaed, journalist at BBC monitoring..

-Far-right violent extremism and terrorism

Zoom-bombing and the far-right's latest assault on college communities: With higher education moving to online learning because of the coronavirus situation, Simon Purdue analyses how far-right violent extremists are adapting their strategies to continue targeting one of their main recruitment target groups: college campuses. Until now, violent extremist campaigns on campuses mostly consisted of flyers and disruption of activities, but with colleges emptying due to the crisis violent extremists are now taking advantage of security loopholes to enter virtual classrooms through “Zoom-bombing.” Purdue reports that violent extremists have disrupted online learning through displaying neo-Nazi symbols, racial slurs, explicit content, and ‘doxing’ – the sharing of confidential information. (Purdue, GNET, 19.04.2020)

– These far-right fringe conspiracies are driving the anti-lockdown protests: With anti-lockdown protests spreading across the US, Tess Owen analyses the far-right conspiracy theories that feed the dissent, as well as violent extremists’ appearance during those protests. Owen notably reports that members of the Proud Boys were seen protesting in Denver and Michigan, and that the far-right violent extremist boogaloo slang, that calls for a new civil war in the US, is increasingly present on Twitter. (Owen, Vice News, 20.04.2020)


– European terror investigations rise by 14 per cent: Nick Harley reports on Eurojust’s – European Union crime agency – 2019 annual report, which shows that the number of terror investigations in the EU has risen over the last year. Eurojust’s report highlights the work conducted in coordination with Member States to disrupt terrorist use of the internet for propaganda, which led to the arrest of a “core disseminator” in Spain last November. Quoting Ladislav Hamran, Eurojust’s President, Harley also underlines that Eurojust has been adapting to the current coronavirus situation to ensure that terrorist actors do not take advantage of it, and that the judicial cooperation needed in the EU is ensured. (Harley, The National, 15.04.2020

Tech policy

– COVID-19 content moderation research letter: In this open letter signed by numerous civil society groups, the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) calls on social media and content-hosting platforms to be transparent in their moderation of Covid-19 related content. According to the call, tech companies are at the centre of how societies “communicate, assemble, research the virus, provide mutual aid and more,” and are increasingly removing misinformation on the outbreak and relying on automated moderation during this crisis. The letter stresses the importance of accurate information, transparency around content moderation, and preservation of removed content for research and journalistic purposes. (Center for Democracy & Technology, 22.04.2020)

– Australia will make Facebook and Google pay for news content: EnGadget reports that the Australian government, through its Competition and Consumer Commission, is planning to create a mandatory code of conduct for tech platforms to pay news outlet when sharing their content. The code of conduct would also regulate “data sharing, news ranking and revenue sharing”. According to EnGadget, a voluntary code was in negotiations, but shifted to a mandatory basis after the coronavirus crisis and its corresponding hit on ad revenue struck. (EnGadget, 19.04.2020)

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Background to Tech Against Terrorism

Tech Against Terrorism is an initiative launched by the United Nations Counter Terrorism Executive Directorate (UN CTED) in April 2017. We support the global technology sector in responding to terrorist use of the internet whilst respecting human rights, and we work to promote public-private partnerships to mitigate this threat. Our research shows that terrorist groups - both jihadist and far-right terrorists - consistently exploit smaller tech platforms when disseminating propaganda. At Tech Against Terrorism, our mission is to support smaller tech companies in tackling this threat whilst respecting human rights and to provide companies with practical tools to facilitate this process. As a public-private partnership, the initiative has been supported by the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) and the governments of Spain, Switzerland, the Republic of Korea, and Canada.