After a three-year investigation into the rise of domestic terrorism and the federal government response, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs recently published its report, The Rising Threat of Domestic Extremism: A Review of the Federal Response to Domestic Terrorism and the Spread of Extremist Content on Social Media. The Committee concluded that tech companies’ business models are “designed to increase user engagement and that…more extreme content tends to increase user engagement, thus leading such content to be amplified.” The finding echoes Counter Extremism Project (CEP) Senior Advisor Dr. Hany Farid’s expert testimony to Congress that “outrageous, divisive, and conspiratorial content increases engagement” and that “the vast majority of delivered content is actively promoted by content providers based on their algorithms that are designed in large part to maximize engagement and revenue.”
The Committee reports that while tech companies have professed its interests in “prioritiz[ing] trust and safety” and “noted that they have invested heavily in content moderation,” their efforts have fallen short in “mitigat[ing] the proliferation of extremist content that their own recommendation algorithms, products, and features and spreading.”
In March 2020, Dr. Farid and other UC Berkeley researchers authored a study, A Longitudinal Analysis Of YouTube’s Promotion Of Conspiracy Videos, that analyzed YouTube’s policies and efforts towards curbing its recommendation algorithm’s tendency to spread divisive conspiracy theories. After reviewing eight million recommendations over 15 months, researchers determined the progress YouTube claimed in June 2019 to have reduced the amount of time its users watched recommended videos including conspiracies by 50 percent—and in December 2019 by 70 percent—did not make the “problem of radicalization on YouTube obsolete nor fictional.” The study ultimately found that a more complete analysis of YouTube’s algorithmic recommendations showed the proportion of conspiratorial recommendations are “now only 40 percent less common than when YouTube’s measures were first announced.”
In its next session, Congress should respond to these findings by lifting liability immunity enshrined in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act for platforms knowingly or recklessly using recommendation algorithms to promote terrorist content. Congress should also lift blanket immunity for terrorist content posted by third parties. While content moderation remains at the forefront of many policy conversations, the material produced by or in support of designated terrorist groups and individuals must be removed unassailably because it continues to inspire further violence.
To watch a recording of the CEP web event, Algorithmic Amplification of Divisive Content on Tech Platforms, please click here.