Can Social Media be Considered a Cause of Terrorism?

Have you ever worried about specific Facebook ads? The Christchurch Call has been in the news this week as the government’s biggest response to the Christchurch attacks that occurred in March 2019. The Christchurch Call, a plan to eliminate terrorist and violent content online with Jacinda Ardern at its helm, has called for greater responsibility to be placed on social media giants such as Twitter and Facebook, and their role and responsibilities to do with terrorism.

The March attack has been described as “a terror attack that was designed to go viral.” This is partly due to the fact a 30-minute video of the attack was allowed to be shared via Facebook Live stream, and the manifesto that circulated on sites such as 4chan and 8chan. This was addressed directly in the release after the Christchurch Call summit, which called for quicker response times from social media sites closing accounts when necessary.

It was the second section of the Christchurch Call however that puts unprecedented scrutiny on the social media giant’s role in terrorism and potentially paints social media as a new cause of terrorism. In the media release, online service providers (including Facebook and Twitter) agreed to “review the operation of algorithms and other processes that may drive users towards and/or amplify terrorist and violent extremist content.”

This suggests that the algorithm can be somehow responsible for the further radicalisation of people who are susceptible to this kind of rhetoric, such as alt-right extremists.

This criticism of the social media giants is unprecedented. Never before have their algorithms that suck users down rabbit holes in the name of advertising been called out by a government, and the implication is definitely that if they had had better practices this may never have happened.

The research is there

Research has suggested that posting excessively and sensationally about crimes such as terrorism has increased the rate in which they occur, due to the viral nature of these stories. News sites that post countless stories about the shooter’s age, background and crime have been accused of perpetrating terrorism, and describing the act in excessive detail can even inspire copycat crimes. It can be argued that social media is just the newest form of mass media, which has housed the messages of terrorists since its inception, but the permeation of social media and the levels of information kept about each user is completely unprecedented. This is directly relevant to the Facebook Live stream of the attack and the Christchurch Call, but what it highlights is the lack of control Facebook seems to have on its targeted advertising.

The dissemination of these stories and videos is only half the battle. My biggest concern with the previously mentioned part of the Christchurch Call is the admission from the social media giants that people may be getting radicalized via the targeted advertising algorithms of Facebook and Twitter. This targeted advertising may be even more accurate than previously thought. There are reports that show Facebook has 29,000 different criteria for each individual Facebook user which it can use to track things such as income to how many credit cards they have in their wallet. ProPublica was even able to target ads at groups described as “Jew hater,” and “How to burn jews” via Facebook’s advertising service.

This targeting would show Facebook users content they had never seen before, sometimes based on continuous searches but sometimes only based on one click. Facebook’s inability to keep extremist content off its services, and a continuous push to show new material to users leaves room for the fact that people may be shown extremist content without ever looking for it.

What happens next?

Prior to the role of social media, the usual causes when talking about recent causes of terrorism are relative deprivation, social connection to a radicalized group, and feeling disconnected from wider society. The extreme sophistication of Facebook and Twitter targeting algorithms are extremely recent, and so little research has been done into this relationship, but it seems it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume Facebook’s algorithms could tap into all three of those dimensions and monopolize on them.

With any luck, the Christchurch Call will have the desired effect and we won’t see any more of this extremist and terrorist activity on social media sites. If it does not, we may see social media and extremism linked in a way we have never seen before- as an analytical tool for how to profile terrorists just as Facebook profiles “Jew hater.” We may also be seeing it as an emerging force of radicalization.

Regardless, now may be the perfect time to push for systemic change. Facebook and Twitter have been allowed to push their agenda on us for too long, and as Ardern says, it cannot be all profit, no responsibility. Perhaps it’s time we become critical about how much information these sites have on us, not just for our own sake but for the sake of national security.