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Curtailing extremist propaganda in the digital world 

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The amount of online videos promoting, recruiting, and broadcasting extremist content has grown in the past twenty years and has become an important tool for extremist groups. Terrorist groups are able to reach millions of people using few resources and minimal expense expense due to the ubiquitous nature of digital media. The videos are used for recruiting, raising funds, and promoting extremist ideologies, and cast a wide net once uploaded to the Internet. Even if the video is taken down quickly, you know how the saying goes — it's impossible to remove them entirely.

The rise of social media is helping spread extremist ideology and promoting terrorism. In the wake of 9/11, in 2001, Qatar-based television network Al Jazeera broadcast segments of Al-Qaeda-produced videos. Only a small portion of the videos were broadcast by the network, so Al-Qaeda began producing more videos and posting them on the Internet instead. Today, terrorist groups have media production houses creating content rivaling most sophisticated television commercials, meant to attract the people suffering from isolation and social and economic strain to extremist ideologies.

This is an issue across the globe, even here in America. Emanuel L. Lutchman of Rochester, New York was so captivated by the videos of Al-Awlaki’s caustic tirades online that it led him to plan a New Year's Eve terrorist attack in 2015, later pleading guilty in court. And one year ago, Omar Mir Seddique murdered 49 people at Pulse nightclub in Orlando after making a video about his allegiance to ISIS. There are many other cases of homegrown terrorist that were inspired to commit acts of terrorism, not directly operatives, but by online videos.

According to a 2016 Center of Complex Operations report, a crucial part of ISIL’s operation is global recruitment. "Its use of new technology and social media is unprecedented and unlike anything seen before in a terrorist group. Its marketing campaign is truly impressive, and it is happening on a massive scale,” the report states.

Almost all new technologies bring their own sets of new problems — combustion engines produce emissions, and there'd be no computer hackers if it weren't for computers — but this particular problem is a matter of immediate safety, and national and international security. It's a problem that costs people's lives on a large scale.

Social media companies use sophisticated algorithms to mine words, images, videos, GPS, etc. to gather data to sell to advertisers. They do a very good job of that. But using this same technology to root out extremist content is less successful. For one thing, the task of filtering through the amount of videos is daunting, and it's not going to get any easier. According to Cisco, Internet video traffic is predicted to be up to 82 percent of all Internet traffic by 2020, added up that's more than five million years worth of video content consumed in one month. You can bet extremist groups aren't going to slow down anytime soon.

New technologies like video fingerprinting, however, have emerged to hopefully make the task easier.

The Center for Human Rights Science at Carnegie Mellon University runs a Human Rights Technology Program, which is conducting a video analysis project. Even though the goal is different than the Google, YouTube, and Twitter media giants, which identify human right abuses in videos for legal prosecution, the center's innovation could possibly help fight the spread of extremist content, creating innovative tools for processing and analyzing videos. For example, soon after the terror attack at the Boston Marathon in 2013, this group reconstructed almost every movement the attackers made leading up to the incident by analyzing hundreds of videos with facial and voice recognition technologies, and more complex computer programs that compiled all the data. Imagine if we had these kinds of programs when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.

Though these technologies can't keep extremist content from being uploaded to the web, they can can make it more dangerous for those that do by tracking data back to specific individuals and locations.

As in many situation, technology alone will not put and end to terrorist attacks, but it can curtail extremist propaganda being spread online, which saves lives. We need to continue down this path of technological innovation to help eliminate this leg of the tentacles of terrorism.

Thomas Russell is a high school information technology teacher and retired Army Signal Corps soldier. He is the founder of SEMtech (Student Engagement and Mentoring in Technology) and an Advisory Board Member of Educating Children of Color. His hobbies include writing, photography and hiking. Contact Thomas via Russell’s Room on Facebook, or email at thruss09@gmail.com, and his photography at thomasholtrussell.zenfolio.com.

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