Online counterterrorism workshop raises big questions for Irish start-ups

7 Sep 2017

Protesters carrying signs denouncing neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Image: Christopher Penler/Shutterstock

Political and social turmoil is transcending real life and thriving on the web, and this means that Irish start-ups need to be ready to tackle some truly horrific things.

Start-ups are used to going to workshops to find out about the latest trends, but few would have thought that they should brush up on what tools and frameworks they need to fight online extremism and terrorism.

That is the situation facing a number of Irish start-ups who plan to attend the free Tech Against Terrorism workshop being held in Dublin City University (DCU) today (7 September).

The global initiative has teamed up with the European academic research group Vox-Pol – which researches how violent extremist politics plays out online – to educate start-ups on the nature of such threats, and the ways in which their platforms might be susceptible to exploitation by violent extremists and terrorists.

Groups such as ISIS are infamous for their 21st-century programme to recruit with propaganda, but countries such as the US have seen a resurgence in other extreme online content, particularly with the far-right movement.

Tech giants uniting under new banner

While sites such as The Daily Stormer have since been pushed underground by domain providers , social media and message boards are becoming a new haven for much of the web’s most hateful content.

That was why companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter earlier this year agreed to set up a new organisation called the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), of which Tech Against Terrorism is one facet.

Its hope is that by all of the major corporations sharing data and intelligence on various online extremism, they can work better with governments to help shut it out before it does any long-term damage, and also help smaller companies that seek their assistance.

Speaking with, Vox-Pol’s coordinator and host of this event, Dr Maura Conway, said that while Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are considered the most vulnerable to online hate speech, corporations are not the only ones in the firing line.

For example, the Saudi Arabian app Sarahah exploded in popularity in recent months with the promise of allowing a person to send a message to someone else completely anonymously, which could be used by individuals for nefarious reasons.

“It’s not easy, but it’s possible for really large corporations like Facebook and Twitter to respond in various ways. They either have the manpower on board or they can get on board extra manpower.

“For start-ups, this can come as a shock for them that they’re being implicated in these issues and, a lot of the time, they don’t have the resources that some of these huge corporations can.”

Censorship or protection?

But who defines what is extreme online content and what isn’t?

This has been a major subject of debate among content creators on platforms such as YouTube, where a corporate fear to make sure no content promoting terrorism makes it online is in play. However, its algorithms find it hard to discern between educational and hateful.

The most recent example is that of the citizen journalism service Bellingcat, which had a number of its videos showing atrocities in Syria taken down, something YouTube later admitted was a “wrong call”.

“This is a really, really difficult issue obviously,” Conway said. “It’s a really complex issue, in fact, because one of the points that’s often raised is that this is essentially private policing, so we’re letting corporations [decide] what is legitimate or illegitimate politics.”

Suggesting proposed alternatives, she added: “Others want to take a more governmental approach; that what we need to do is introduce appropriate legislation, and then others such as Tech Against Terrorism and that kind are trying to get in there … and educate tech companies.”

Safe to say, it’s a problem that few have concrete answers to, but examples such as the Bellingcat incident are what Irish start-ups attending the Tech Against Terrorism event are hoping to find out more about.

Protesters carrying signs denouncing neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Image: Christopher Penler/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic