For immediate release | Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Tech & Terrorism: Coronavirus Misinformation Across Internet Shows Industry’s Failings

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Despite Promises To Do Otherwise, Tech Fails To Set Industry Norms & Assist Smaller Websites With Content Moderation

(New York, N.Y.) – Extremist groups spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic have moved away from popular social media platforms to other sites to sow discord and disperse their radical ideologies. Extremists are increasingly favoring alternatives such as Google Drive and Internet Archive over major social media platforms in order to avoid detection and takedowns of their violent propaganda and misinformation campaigns. This shift in tactics calls into question the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism’s (GIFCT) efficacy, which was created by the tech industry to prevent extremists from misusing sites across the Internet.

In 2017, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube created the GIFCT in response to growing criticism from the public and lawmakers over tech’s inability to halt the spread of extremist and terrorist material online. The GIFCT’s stated mission is to leverage technology and share information and best practices to help ensure consistent policies and practices across platforms and sites. In effect, the GIFCT is supposed to facilitate cooperation between large companies—which have more resources and manpower to moderate extremist content on their platforms—and small tech firms.

“The appearance of radical and potentially harmful COVID-19 misinformation on sites like Google Drive and Internet Archive calls into question the GIFCT’s purpose and efficacy,” said Counter Extremism Project (CEP) Executive Director David Ibsen. “There is no reason the GIFCT could not quickly create and establish an effective set of industry norms for extremist COVID-19 content, especially when major social media platforms have already decided to remove that type of content. It is troubling that YouTube and Google Drive, which are owned by the same parent company, cannot ensure that the same or similar pieces of content are removed. The fact that this content is also appearing on sites like Internet Archive raises concerns about the GIFCT’s claims of supporting smaller platforms. Clearly, tech companies still have not learned from the Christchurch attack video, which was reuploaded millions of times across the Internet. And their careless inability to coordinate among GIFCT members to prevent the proliferation of extremist content online will continue to harm lives and public safety.”

One of the most infamous episodes of the GIFCT’s failures involved Brenton Tarrant’s New Zealand Christchurch attack video, which was livestreamed on Facebook. Despite its intial takedown, the video was still reuploaded millions of times across the entire Internet. On Facebook alone, it was reuploaded 1.5 million times. Facebook’s spectacular failure to stop the livestream of the New Zealand shootings and halt reuploads of the video onto other sites and platforms makes it clear that the time and resources dedicated to the GIFCT has amounted to very little, especially as Facebook admits its algorithms can’t even distinguish between shootings and “visually similar” but harmless video games. One year later in March, CEP still was able to easily locate the video online, including on both Google Drive and Internet Archive.

Further, extremists spreading misinformation about COVID-19 are following the same strategy undertaken by ISIS. Just last week, between May 16 to May 22, CEP located four ISIS Amaq News videos on the Internet Archive. One video showed the execution of a man identified as a Kurdish deminer and the other three were similarly situated terror propaganda content. This tactic of using sites that are not traditional social media platforms has been tracked for years. In November 2019, ISIS’s Amaq News outlet posted over 45 pieces of ISIS propaganda material on the Internet Archive. One of ISIS’s most notorious bomb-making videos involving TATP, a powerful but unstable explosive that can be made using basic household components, was found to be continuously uploaded onto Google Drive in January 2018.