Last week saw Facebook cement their commitment to challenging the presence of extremist ideologies online, with the launch of a new campaign called Online Civil Courage Initiative (OCCI). The OCCI will aim to provide funding and develop best practices for NGO's currently working to counter violent extremism (CVE) online, whilst supporting research to understand the roots of extremism and hate speech.
At the launch event in Berlin, Facebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg was firm. "Hate speech has no place in our society, not even on the Internet" she said, reflecting a growing awareness from social media platforms. In 2015, both Facebook and Twitter announced they would find and remove hate speech from their sites within 24 hours.
The challenge that Facebook and others have is how to reconcile the need to counter violent extremist speech online with the desire to protect the integrity of free speech. Common criticism to the removal of hate speech online is pointing the finger of online censorship. The argument often focuses on concerns that it's a slippery slope towards an online Orwellian dystopia.
These criticisms should not be ignored, and how social media balances its response with the maintaining of liberal principles will determine its legacy in this new era of digitalised extremism. Despite this challenge, the reality we are living with is that violent extremist groups are using mainstream social media platforms to broadcast and amplify their niche, cult-like ideologies, and infiltrate the phones, homes and minds of the vulnerable and disillusioned. Countering these groups at the root is not the domain of social media platforms, but disrupting their routes of communication should be. Facebook's decision to monitor and remove hate speech, is indicative of the kind of disruption social media platforms can undertake.
In defence of such a strategy, Western societies have already accepted and adapted to the securitization of public and private spaces. It surely does not seem so radical a perspective as to accept some semblance of securitisation online. The offline and online spaces are not separate environments, and the repercussions of online radicalisation can echo violently into the offline world. The function and popularity of sites such as Facebook has given new scope to the recruitment and mobilisation capacities of violent extremist groups, and domestic radicalisation of youths is an issue facing nations from Britain and the US, to China and Indonesia.
Young British citizens, vulnerable to the pull of these groups, are being recruited by far-right and religious extremists who exploit social media to reach this new pool of potential recruits. It is inadequate a response to hold freedom of speech in such high regard as to belligerently shut down any attempts to combat such a damaging threat to the lives of those vulnerable to radicalisation, and to those hurt by their actions. Sheryl Sandberg empathetically claimed at the launch of OCCI that "Facebook is not a place for the dissemination of hate speech or incitement to violence". If social media companies can find the necessary balance between security and the protection of liberal values, then it is their responsibility to act.
Using their financial weight to support NGO's which counter violent extremism is evidence of Facebook's decision to take extremism seriously. It is a somewhat less contentious approach than removing hate speech, and can act as a long-term accompaniment to the 24-hour removal service.
Organisations that counter extremism online are multiplying by the month, with various focuses from education and critical thinking, to direct engagement with extremists. ExitUSA runs a pro-active online campaign to persuade current and former members of violent far-right groups to contact them, with the offer of support from an active network of former extremists who can relate to their beliefs and struggles.
Involving former extremists in such organisations is a particularly impactful approach to CVE, and was recognised by Sandberg as the best responsive we currently have to the online presence of ISIS:
"The best thing to speak against recruitment by Isis are the voices of people who were recruited by Isis, understand what the true experience is, have escaped and have come back to tell the truth... Counter-speech to the speech that is perpetuating hate we think by far is the best answer"
ICCO is a promising example of the private, government and civil society sectors working together towards a common goal. The initiative is supported by the German Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection, and is a partnership between Facebook, the "think and do tank" Institute for Strategic Dialogue, the Berlin-based Amadeu Antonio Foundation, and the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence. The success of the initiative remains to be seen, but the need for a response is urgent, and a company as significant as Facebook attempting to do something positive and constructive is encouraging.