Prior to last Thursday’s general election, British Prime Minister Theresa May was taking a pounding for suggesting regulation by international agreement to “deprive” Islamist terrorists of their “safe spaces online.” As she continues on as PM, that pounding will intensify.
Some people—and not just dippy hippies who get hard-ons for net neutrality—worry that banning content that could be or definitively is terrorist-y could create a precedent for banning other, far less problematic “hate speech” online.
Some people feel May’s call is simply redundant and that Google, Facebook and Twitter really are, as they assert, already acting to eliminate terrorist propaganda and other content leveraging their services.
But the biggest reason why May’s call looks ham-handed, silly, potentially counter-productive or even downright dangerous has nothing to do with these things. In fact, most objectionable about what May proposed was that it looked like a purely political move designed to save her backside during a tricky period. Worse yet, if implemented, it’s one that might actually help the terrorists win.
Prior to becoming PM, May served as the UK’s Home Secretary, meaning national security and policing once sat within her direct purview. Of course, both continue to do so, albeit less directly, today.
When a terrorist attack (or two, or three, or more) occur, there’s plenty of blame to go around, but surely a good chunk of it rests with whoever occupies 10 Downing Street and whoever is or has been overseeing the likes of MI5.
Like it or not, that’s May, who was facing an election predicted to be shockingly tight when the most recent attacks occurred. No surprise she offered up what looks like an easy solution that points the finger elsewhere; it’s a totally obvious move that any politician in her circumstances would at least think about.
But it’s also one that should be rejected—and now that she’s set to continue as PM for at least awhile—not just because it looks so very political. Indeed, May’s call disregards the truth about how radicalization occurs. If implemented, it could make intelligence-gathering on terrorists much tougher for intelligence services.
According to Professor Peter Neumann and Dr. Shiraz Maher of King’s College London, radicalization actually occurs offline as a result of personal, not technology-based, social media-only connections. At best, online incitement appears to be a relatively minor—albeit high-profile— piece of the puzzle.
In an op-ed at the BBC, Neumann and Maher, who have gathered data on about 800 Western ISIS recruits, write that “the decisive factor in moving people from being extremists in terms of their thoughts and beliefs to becoming terrorists is not online propaganda but offline social networks.” They cite none other than convicted ISIS supporter Anjem Choudary as an example of this: “Choudary also had a YouTube channel, but practically all of his followers were known to him personally and were recruited face to face.” Neumann and Maher allege that “preachers such as Choudary have spent years spreading their message virtually unchallenged on British streets.”
For those of us who lived in North London in the early 2000s, that sounds exactly right. Remember how Finsbury Park mosque had become a hotbed for radicalization in that period, not only run by the notorious Abu Hamza but attended by Richard Reid, Zacarias Moussaoui and extremists who subsequently fought in Afghanistan? That all occurred in the days before Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Now, as then, charismatic inciters with an in-person connection to their “flock” are the core problem.
May also seems to miss the fact that the use of major social media sites, and indeed less-paid-attention to ones like 4Chan, by terrorist inspirers and their jihadist groupies presents an opportunity for monitoring, tracking, and data-gathering regarding individual terrorists.
This explains why multiple former rank-and-file, average, non-celebrity members of the intelligence community believe purging social media in the way May is arguing for could be damaging to counter-terrorism efforts—both preventive and investigative.
According to one such former IC’er, eliminating YouTube as a “safe space” for terrorist inspirers could be dangerous both with regard to preventive and investigative efforts, whereas ridding Facebook of this kind of content might be more problematic from a pure investigative standpoint. (Ridding Twitter of this content perhaps matters less).
Whatever the specific utility of allowing content to bubble up on one platform or another, when looking at the issue through the prism of intelligence-gathering and serving up good, useful information to those you’re expecting to act on it, one finds plenty of agreement that it’s better to have the baddies communicating where you can see it, grab it, analyze it or at least check the extent of it easily, rather than pushing them to some other forum—on or offline—that is tougher to surveil.
And ultimately, social media is easy to surveil. Those of us who do basic political and policy opposition research do it all the time, albeit on a very simple level. Neumann and Maher obviously did it as part of their own effort to analyze those Western ISIS recruits, too, and they learned a lot from that process. You can bet a good chunk of employees at a range of intelligence services around the world do it all day, every day, extraordinarily effectively and efficiently—if not always perfectly.
The UK has a lengthy history with terrorism, of the Islamist variety and of the Irish Republican variety. It’s understandable given the horrific nature of the attacks it has recently suffered and May’s political situation that she would have issued the call she did: It’s an easy policy “solution” for the public to hear, you don’t need a wonk to explain to you why it might theoretically accomplish something, and it’s a demand that can easily and visibly be met by people outside the British government, enabling May to look like a leader who gets things done if it happens and allowing her to keep pointing a finger very effectively if it does not.
It’s just that “getting things done” here might end up being seriously counter-productive in the long run—something May undoubtedly knows well given her prior experience, whether she’s likely to admit it or not.
Liz Mair is a Republican political strategist, a Tory, and the president, founder and owner of Mair Strategies LLC. She lives in Arlington, Virginia.