The independent Commission for Countering Extremism was this week announced as an Executive Board member of the new UK Council for Internet Safety (UKCIS). We believe this body, an expansion of the old UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS), presents a critical opportunity to highlight how social media has been a game changer for extremism.
Conspiracy theories, fake news and disinformation campaigns have long been the bread and butter tactics of extremist groups. Unfortunately social media platforms are being used as a tool to spread extremism and hateful views at an unprecedented scale. As a society we don’t fully understand the harm this is causing. We therefore need to better understand how online activity impacts offline behaviour and actions.
We do know that extremists are using the internet to spread their messages more widely, powerful and rapidly than ever before. At the Home Affairs Committee last week, our Lead Commissioner Sara Khan described the scale of online extremist propaganda as “mind-boggling”.
Up and down the country we have heard from teachers, youth workers and parents worried about who children are talking to online, which sites they are accessing and their vulnerability to extremist propaganda. We’ve also been told of concerns that both the Far Right and Islamist extremists are using the internet to mainstream their hatred and mobilise supporters while threatening and intimidating activists.
The Government and social media companies are working on this, mainly by taking down illegal and violent content closely associated with terrorists.
The Commission for Countering Extremism, along with many others, is equally concerned about content that is legal, but spreads extremist and dehumanising views which can incite violence and other harms. We need to find better ways to challenge this. It is not realistic or in some cases, appropriate, to take it all down. Safeguarding people and civil debate online must be balanced with the need to protect freedom of speech. This is a vital issue, as this week’s Moral Maze shows, and the Commission will continue to explore this balance.
The Government has said it will create new online safety laws to make sure the UK is the safest place in the world to be online following its Internet Safety Strategy green paper. At the same time, social media companies, such as Twitter, are developing new policies
The Home Affairs Select Committee and groups like TellMAMA have challenged social media companies and the Government on this for a long time and pointed out quite rightly that progress has been slow. Just today, the Law Commission has called for a reform of laws dealing with online abuse, arguing that online communications law is currently “not keeping pace with technological changes”.
At the Commission, we want to better understand how the online environment is accelerating extremism and how much extremists themselves are contributing to a climate of hate and abuse online. This will be a cross-cutting theme for our forthcoming study into all forms of extremism.
The former UKCCIS focused on children, with a range of interventions from default parental filters to internet awareness training for schools. We look forward to working with all our fellow board members to safeguard those targeted by extremists.