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Jihadi John created online censorship After Isis, the extremism industry needed new targets

Not long ago, you could stumble upon entire ecosystems of jihadis and their fanboys on Twitter.

Not long ago, you could stumble upon entire ecosystems of jihadis and their fanboys on Twitter.


April 28, 2022   5 mins

It’s unclear how far Elon Musk’s pledge to restore free speech to Twitter will go; it wasn’t long ago that you could easily stumble upon entire ecosystems of online jihadis and their fanboys on the site. As one surrealist Twitter account put it: “i miss ISIS twitter. when u could just get on here and click around for a bit and find some guys in ISIS on here tweeting about it, posting their cool ass trucks and shit”.

Back before Big Tech cracked the whip on jihadis and their online fanboys, it wasn’t uncommon for journalists and analysts to interact directly with terrorists in distant war zones, even building something of a rapport. The bizarre tension of these interactions, between battle-hardened religious fanatics and those on the other side of their celestial war, was not lost on terrorism scholar J.M. Berger. Describing his virtual relationship with an American al-Shabaab fighter, he noted how it became “part of my daily routine… to check in with a terrorist with a professed love of al-Qaida in Somalia on the other side of the world.”

Jihadist groups recognised the enormous and unprecedented potential reach that social media afforded. Posts by Isis fighters formed part of a deliberate grassroots strategy to flood the internet with unofficial propaganda to complement the organisation’s glossier official output.

Initially, Western security services were indulgent toward the tweeting terrorists, thanks largely to the treasure trove of intel they provided. Jihadist recruits would post photographs with easily geolocatable features — treelines, ridges, hills and apartment buildings — and pose for selfies that would haunt them in court many months or years later. Posts also provided valuable insights into internal dynamics and even instability within terrorist groups. The American in al-Shabaab live-tweeted his dispute with the organisation’s mainly Somali leadership, a dispute which ended in his eventual assassination. Leaving jihadis online, it was argued, left them right where we could see them.

The summer of 2014 changed all that.

In June that year, Isis easily overran Mosul — and the US trained and equipped Iraqi forces defending it — and declared a caliphate. This declaration transformed the trickle of foreign fighters joining the group (now a quasi-state) into a flood. In the weeks that followed, “Isis Twitter” was drunk on battlefield triumphalism, apocalypticism and a catalogue of pornographic violence — violence that was “instantly accessible at the click of a mouse.”

Despite a litany of other atrocities, it was the filmed execution of American reporter James Foley in August that prompted decisive action. Here was an act so monstrous, and with such reach, that social media companies changed their content moderation policies almost overnight. “We have been and are actively suspending accounts as we discover them related to this graphic imagery. Thank you”, tweeted Twitter CEO Dick Costolo the morning after a video of the beheading was posted online. Facebook took similar action, mere months after defending its decision to leave videos of cartel atrocities online.

Jihadis had beheaded victims on camera before, but never in such high definition and never at the hands of a masked executioner with an unmistakable British accent. (The killer, nicknamed “Jihadi John” by the press, was later revealed to be a London-raised IT salesman named Mohammed Emwazi.) Perhaps the accent was the decisive element which prompted such a response: instead of violence between distant and unfamiliar people, the killer was one of our own. And, unlike the terrorist spectacle of 9/11, the sickening act of decapitating helpless captives represented what the philosopher Adriana Cavarero has described as horrorism: “An ontological crime well beyond the inflicting of death.

Revisiting the commentary in the days that followed is like peering through a window to another planet. The New Yorker asked “Should Twitter Have Taken Down the James Foley Video?”, while Slate ran the headline: “Did Twitter and YouTube Make the Right Call in Suppressing Images of James Foley’s Beheading?” Both explored the possible consequences of the companies adopting editorial control.

At the same time, Western governments were leaning heavily into the narrative that the exodus of their own citizens to the newly declared caliphate was a product of gruesome Isis propaganda. Tech companies sought to deflect mounting pressure from governments over terrorist content, but they could not outright reject the charge that their platforms were influencing minds and behaviour — it is central to their ad-based business model.

Government concern over online radicalisation and the loose changed tech companies deigned to throw at initiatives countering it fostered the emergence of an online extremism industry. Despite its efforts, a considerable radicalisation has since taken place — a radicalisation not of large numbers of internet users transformed into terrorists by social media, but of the entire discourse on online terrorism and the field it sustained.

The response to Jihadi John’s campaign of choreographed butchery set the precedent that tech companies could be pressured and shamed into censoring extremist content. Since then, the number of people and groups who’ve come under the microscope of online extremism entrepreneurs has dramatically expanded, as has the list of ideologies deemed near-terroristic.

Sexless men on the internet are the next great terror threat. Criticising immigration policy is mainstreaming the Great Replacement conspiracy theory. Gender critical feminists are peddling hate. Millions of Americans are in fact, “mass radicalised”. Free speech itself is a far-Right talking point. Critics of Covid lockdowns were spreading misinformation and making bedfellows of the far-Right. As terrorism scholar Simon Cottee put it, “Nobody in this game, if we’re honest, has an interest in seeing radicalisation go away. It’s bad for business. We need radicalised people, and if we can’t find them, we’ll invent them.”

It used to be that “radicalisation” meant the process that led individuals to kill for politics. But, responsive to the latest controversies and funding incentives of the day, it has expanded to cover broader concepts such as “hate”, “mis/disinformation”, “harm” and more, dangerously blurring the lines between political debate and counter-terrorism. This confusion was helped along by the narrative of resurgent fascism that accompanied the populist victories of 2016. In some counter-extremism circles, Brexit and Trump could be mentioned in the same breath as the present-day genocidaires of Isis.

If this list of new extremists and terrorists sounds like a list of progressive bogeymen, it is. The constellation of extremism NGOs and academic centres fill their rosters from social classes where certain interests, prejudices and worldviews are near hegemonic. Those interests happen to strongly overlap with the incumbent governments in both Canada and the United States, who are of course content for likeminded organisations to define who is an extremist and who is an upstanding citizen deserving of an online presence.

This political alignment grants access to funding opportunities, as well as platforms in a sympathetic media environment, for progressive extremism experts, who can in turn paint targets for politically sympathetic moderators in Silicon Valley and pressure them to act.

The threat to free speech and civil liberties posed by this arrangement should be obvious to all but the most partisan. This is not just a cheap pop at progressivism. It should barely need saying that the danger would be just as real if the industries at hand were dominated by conservatives and if conservatives ruled the roost in Ottawa and D.C. But at present, they aren’t and don’t.

Nor is it enough to point out that the Big Tech companies are private. As free speech guru Jacob Mchangama has observed of the major social media platforms: “No government in history has ever been able to exert such extensive control over what is being said, read, and shared by so many people across the world and in real time.” These platforms are the public square now; upstart competitors are liable to be crushed, sometimes under political and media pressure amid accusations of extremism.

It seems unlikely Elon Musk will be reinstating Isis Twitter on free speech grounds. But today, the legitimate debate on how far platforms should go in response to online extremism is less likely to focus on Jihadi John’s beheading videos than on Joe Rogan’s podcast or a contrarian Substack. The historian of populism Thomas Frank summed up the dominant attitude among his fellow liberals: “The remedy for bad speech, we now believe, is not more speech, as per Justice Brandeis’s famous formula, but an ‘extremism expert’ shushing the world.”

As the recent jihadist assassination of David Amess MP shows, even with actual attacks, our culture seems unable to process terrorism through any lens other than an immediate clamour for greater online controls and censorship. Eight years after Isis splattered blood and gore across social media, we still need real expertise and study of extremist and terrorist groups. What we do not need is an industry laundering censorious agendas as impartial expertise, enforcing partisan truths to combat disinformation, or managing public debate under the guise of counter-terrorism.


Liam Duffy is a researcher, speaker and trainer in counter-terrorism based in London.

LiamSD12

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Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
1 year ago

The link to the Thomas Frank article is well worth reading. A moment of accurate self awareness, published in the Guardian, must be a positive step.

Something that seems to be missing in the Twitter debate is the MSM’s amplifying role. Only 20% of the UK’s population has a Twitter account and only a small percentage of them are activists.

Twitter only matters because mainstream journalists report what this tiny bunch of nutters think as if they represent broad social trends. If journalists were banned from having a Twitter account the whole thing could go back to cat videos.

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
1 year ago

Progressive fascism.
”Four legs good, two legs bad”
“This phrase, which occurs in Chapter III, constitutes Snowball’s condensation of the Seven Commandments of Animalism, which themselves serve as abridgments of Old Major’s stirring speech on the need for animal unity in the face of human oppression. The phrase instances one of the novel’s many moments of propagandizing, which Orwell portrays as one example of how the elite class abuses language to control the lower classes. Although the slogan seems to help the animals achieve their goal at first, enabling them to clarify in their minds the principles that they support, it soon becomes a meaningless sound bleated by the sheep (“two legs baa-d”), serving no purpose other than to drown out dissenting opinion. By the end of the novel, as the propagandistic needs of the leadership change, the pigs alter the chant to the similar-sounding but completely antithetical “Four legs good, two legs better.””
What part of this does the progressive liberal elite not understand ? Is it just not clever enough, does it lack sufficient buzzwords or incomprehensible gobbledygook ( that horror fore fend, the plebeians might actually understand and call it out for what it actually is). It seems doubly ironic that a book about Stalinism seems to have become a guide book for todays fascist tendencies of the liberal hegemony.

Tom Lewis
TL
Tom Lewis
1 year ago

It seems somewhat ironic, that quoting from ‘Animal Farm’ is potentially censored. Even the “Awaiting for approval” seems an odd phrase (I dun know, maybe it’s correct ?). Surely it should read ‘Waiting for approval’ or indeed ‘Awaiting approval’ ? They just seem to be uncertain (almost as if the very notion itself doesn’t quite sit comfortably within themselves) that they gave up deciding which phrase to use, so just plumped for something in between ?

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom Lewis

Awaiting for approval” seems an odd phrase
The software is probably an off-the-shelf package and was probably written (cheaply) in a country where English isn’t the first language.

Jeremy Bray
JB
Jeremy Bray
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Particularly odd as presumably the comments that are allowed to appear are not “approved” merely not found to be sufficiently objectionable to be suppressed.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jeremy Bray
ARNAUD ALMARIC
AA
ARNAUD ALMARIC
1 year ago

You must have noticed that to comment on today’s essay on HM the Queen, you have to ‘click again’ , unlike all other of today’s other essays.
This puts your comment before the Chief Imperial Censor, who then ‘slashes and burns’ as he/she thinks fit.

Please Mr Musk, your devoted yet unworthy servants beg you rescue us from this nonsense.

Last edited 1 year ago by ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
AA
ARNAUD ALMARIC
1 year ago

As at 14.41 BST, all discussion on the Good Friday Agreement in today’s Blair essay has been CENSORED.
QED?

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
1 year ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT comments restored as at:
16.16 BST.

J Bryant
JB
J Bryant
1 year ago

At 9.25 GMT there are still no comments on that article.
I’ve noticed the range of total number of comments on most articles is much lower than even a few months ago. I think Unherd is losing readers.