Why It Remains Difficult To Shut Down Jihadist Propaganda Online

In this screenshot, Amedy Coulibaly pledges his allegiance to the Islamic State.

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In this screenshot, Amedy Coulibaly pledges his allegiance to the Islamic State.

Online companies are struggling to figure out how to balance free speech with promoting extremist content and propaganda, and it is not easy. By Heather Timmons

The latest video from the Islamic State (or ISIL/ISIS), released Jan. 11, shows Amedy Coulibaly, who killed four people in a Paris grocery store last week, declaring his allegiance to the self-declared caliphate and its leader, and urging other Muslims in France to follow in his footsteps.

Like much of ISIL’s publicity push, the video itself is relatively slickly produced, using music and headings and French subtitles when Coulibaly speaks in Arabic. Speaking matter-of-factly and calmly, Coulibaly said he pledged his allegiance to ISIL as soon as the group declared its caliphate last summer, and describes how he coordinated his actions with Said and Chérif Kouachi, the two men accused of killing 12 at the offices of French magazine Charlie Hebdo, in order to “have more of an impact.” “If you attack the Caliphate and the Islamic State, you will be attacked,” he says, and urges the Muslims of France to fight.

The video quickly spread through social media, but was removed from YouTube at the request of French authorities. Only snippets, mostly from news organizations reporting on it, remained on YouTube by early on Monday morning in Hong Kong. But a copy of the video was still available hours later on Vid.me, an online video sharing site which, unlike YouTube and Facebook, doesn’t require user registration. AReddit discussion was directing readers to it.

Vid.me suspended the video immediately when contacted by Quartz. “We’re taking down ISIS propaganda content as quickly as possible,” Vid.me’s co-founder, Warren Shaeffer, told Quartz. “Across the board there has been a surge in ISIS related content getting posted, and we’re not unique in trying to figure out the best way to deal with it,” he said.

Tech firms and government officials in Europe met in October to discuss online extremism, and executives from the world’s big user-generated content platforms quietly met last month to hash over the topic.

It is easier for some companies than others. Giants like Twitter and Facebook often have dedicated, localized teams to deal with extremist-related content. Vid.me, which just started last summer, has six employees. The company is considering hiring someone who speaks Arabic to review content. “Every company is struggling to figure out how to balance free speech with promoting extremist content and propaganda, and it is not easy,” Shaeffer said.

Twitter has reportedly suspended thousands of user accounts suspected to have links with ISIL, only to see new ones spring up immediately. The company has been forced to take a new “preemptive” approach to try to combat ISIL’s spread on the web. And Twitter “is only the tip of the iceberg,” reports Geopolitical Monitor, a Canadian consultancy. Online internet forums, which are much less closely monitored, are the biggest source of jihadist propaganda, and the main center of recruitment, the group says.

On Vid.me, the Coulibaly video was posted by a user named “Baqeah,” whose only other contribution is a picture of graffitied storefronts. But even after the video was suspended, you didn’t need to look far to find more ISIL propaganda—several of Baqeah’s 10 followers had also put up Islamic State videos.

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