July 18, 2011
Google Still Supporting Terrorism: What YouTube MUST Do About It
"As-Sahab" is al Qaeda's official media arm. A YouTube search shows over 2,000 videos self-described in English as being produced by as-Sahab.
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YouTube is now the number one source of terrorist propaganda on the internet. Over the past year YouTube, a subsidiary of internet giant Google, has taken certain steps to combat this. However, they have not gone nearly far enough.
What has YouTube done to take down terrorist propaganda videos?
They have added a "promotes terrorism" flag, giving users who stumble across terrorist propaganda the chance to report this.
Since instituting the new flag we have noticed that the time which it takes YouTube to take down these videos has decreased dramatically. In the past it was a crapshoot as to whether or not YouTube would remove a video we deemed as promoting terrorism. Today, the vast majority of videos we flag for supporting terrorism are taken down, usually the same day.
This is a good start. But it's not enough.
What further steps must YouTube make to show that it is making a good faith effort to remove jihadi video?
Unfortunately, YouTube's terrorism video policies are reactive rather than proactive. This means that a few dozen uncompensated activists are left to combat thousands of YouTube users who support terrorism of one stripe or another.
Many of these users conceive of themselves as "mujahideen" and creating and/or distributing jihadi propaganda as their "jobs". Some of these users are located in Europe and, because of generous welfare payments, have no other job than to sit around all day spreading the message. Others are from Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian countries with economies so depressed that it is not seen as unusual for young men to do nothing productive. Still others work directly or indirectly for terrorist groups, and are therefore professionally employed as part or full-time propagandists.
The few dozen volunteers that take a few minutes out of their day to flag terrorist videos simply cannot compete with this. Most of us have serious full time jobs which simply don't allow us to do this full time.
YouTube's passive policy of only responding to flags stacks the cards in favor of the terrorists.
YouTube must become proactive in taking down terrorist propaganda. They cannot and must not wait until a user flags a video. There are simply too many videos which go unflagged this way. Thousands and thousands of them.
The passive policy adopted by YouTube equates the very serious problem of terrorism with other much less serious socially unacceptable behavior. The terrorism flag is at the bottom of a dropdown listing adults fighting, physical attack, youth violence, & animal abuse.
While I in no way endorse animal abuse, to equate a video of a dogfight with a video calling for the murder of American soldiers is a morally bankrupt position. Yet this is exactly YouTube's position.
Videos supporting terrorism must be put in the same category as other reprehensible behavior such as child pornography.
But YouTube doesn't treat terrorism with the same disgust they treat child pornography. In fact, they don't treat terrorism with the same disgust they treat pornography. But not even pornography, nudity.
I find it harder to find nudity on YouTube than finding videos which support terrorism.
Think about that. I'm willing to bet that there are many more videos containing nudity uploaded to YouTube than videos supporting terrorism. Yet nearly all of those with nudity are taken down rather quickly. I find it hard to believe that YouTube waits for people offended by such nudity to flag them before it takes them down.
If I'm right then YouTube has a proactive policy of finding and removing videos of containing nudity. They don't wait for users to flag them, but they use some sort of automated system to find and remove them.
But videos that support terrorism? That gets a lower priority and YouTube users must find these videos themselves and flag them before YouTube will remove them.
The "set to private" problem.
While we who flag these terrorist videos have to admit that YouTube is doing somewhat better than they were a year ago, the problem is just too massive for the proposed solution. There are simply too many videos in support of terrorism on YouTube and too few actively flagging them.
Over the course of the last six months I have noticed that videos come down after flagging them much quicker than before. Much quicker.
However, those that upload these videos have figured out a workaround to our flagging campaign: setting the video to "private".
Many times over the last few months when I have been notified by the YouTube Smackdown Corps of a particular target the video has been set to private viewing before it gets flagged. When a video is set to private, there is no possibility of flagging it.
This tells us two things that we already know: 1) That we have been infiltrated seems clear as the targeted video was public until the Daily Smackdown list went out and then it goes private before too many of us can flag it. Luckily, this only happens on occasion as whoever is monitoring our activities cannot possibly have a relationship with each and every YouTube user that supports terrorism ; 2) That the jihadis don't want to simply migrate their videos to other video platforms and are willing to take steps to ensure that their videos remain on YouTube.
A problem related to #2 above is the multiple YouTube accounts phenomenon. Some of the most prolific YouTube jihadis create multiple accounts. When one account is suspended, they simply switch to a new account.
YouTube should institute an IP or other user banning program which makes it more difficult for users to have multiple accounts used as backup when one of them is taken down.
The lesson for intelligence and law enforcement.
The natural reaction by some in intelligence and law enforcement circles is that the scope of the problem is so big, and the workarounds so easy, that doing nothing is the best option. The "whack-a-mole" analogy is the one often cited in these circles. You take down one video, it just pops up somewhere else. So, what's the point of taking them down in the first place?
Unfortunately, the analogy is an imperfect one and misses the larger point.
The point is not to remove all jihadi videos from YouTube or the internet. That is an impossible task.
I have never seen any pedophile videos on the internet or on YouTube, but I've been told that they are there.
The point is not getting rid of all of them, the point is to make it harder to find them.
This accomplishes goals on two ends. On the distributor end it weeds out the casual distributor of jihadi propaganda from the committed distributor. The harder you make it to keep these videos on YouTube, the less committed will fall away by the wayside. Only those truly committed to the cause will continue to take the time and effort necessary to keeping these videos online.
Neither intelligence services nor law enforcement have the resources to monitor all purveyors of terrorist propaganda. By weeding out the less committed we can more easily detect and monitor those who may be potentially more dangerous.
The same principle applies to users. Of recent discussion in jihadi circles has been the warning that those sympathetic to the cause should not download videos to hard drives or other local devices. In some countries, such as the UK, having an al Qaeda video on your hard drive is a prosecutable offense. In others, such as the US, such videos, while not illegal, could be used as evidence of a terroristic motive in an otherwise routine criminal trial.
So, jihadis often encourage one another to view these videos in streaming format which they claim makes it harder for law enforcement to either track them or prosecute them once caught.
By making the viewing of jihad material online more difficult we are helping law enforcement and intelligence agencies weed out the casual observer from those committed to the cause.
Of course, this is not a fail safe method of detecting who will commit an act of violence vs. who will not. I am not suggesting that this is the solution to the problem of homegrown terrorism.
What I am suggesting is that when it becomes difficult to find jihadi propaganda online that keeping track of who is uploading and downloading these videos will become a much more effective tool for those in the counter-terrorism fight.
Simply leaving them all up or reacting to them only when flagged is no help at all. Only when we have whittled down the number of available videos will the problem become more tractable.
So, now what?
I continue to be convinced that the only thing that will change YouTube's behavior will be a lawsuit by the family of a victim of terrorism either here or abroad. Money talks, and Google's bottom line is its profits.
Barring that then political pressure may do the trick. Hard questions from Sen. Lieberman seemed to do the trick in getting YouTube to act and add the "supports terrorism" flag. Further hard questions from other congressional committees, such as the one chaired by Rep. King, might do the trick in pressuring Google into further action.
But even if Google and YouTube do nothing, you can do something. We cannot get rid of all of these videos at YouTube -- not even close. But you can make it harder for those that support terrorism to use the world's premier video website by joining the YouTube Smackdown Corps here, or follow them on Twitter here Also follow Quotheraven's[Andrea] twitter here. She tweets throughout the day.
UPDATE: I forgot to mention two things.
First, YouTube does a terrible job at taking down anything that isn't in plain English. Arabic or Urdu or Somali? Fahget about it. That needs to change.
Second, Google held a "summit" on online extremism back in June. The fact that I wasn't invited speaks volumes. No, I don't think that highly of myself it's just on this issue there are not a lot of players and in this little iddy biddy pond I am the big fish.
But even if I was invited summits are no substitution for action. Their lawyers prepared a document that can be read here on what YouTube is doing to combat terrorist use of their product. It was that document that really spurred this post. Simply put: despite the feeble lawyeresque/PR professional language, they are not doing enough.
It's time to stop talking about action, and taking action.
Thanks to a couple of Guests in the comments for the reminders.
UPDATE by SH: Andrea has more on the Arabic BS