Friday 15 December 2017

Facebook is to ramp up efforts to battle ISIS and other terrorist groups

Technology companies have responded to accusations that they are not doing enough to stamp out extremist content online (Stock picture)
Technology companies have responded to accusations that they are not doing enough to stamp out extremist content online (Stock picture)
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Facebook is to ramp up efforts to battle ISIS and other terrorist groups.

Less than a month after terrorist attacks in Manchester and London left 30 people dead, the tech giant says that it is making progress with new systems across Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp to fight ISIS and other extremists using Facebook services online.

New measures include image-matching, language analysis and deeper forms of artificial intelligence to weed out threatening activity.

“When someone tries to upload a terrorist photo or video, our systems look for whether the image matches a known terrorism photo or video,” said Monicka Bickert, head of global policy at Facebook.

“This means that if we previously removed a propaganda video from ISIS, we can work to prevent other accounts from uploading the same video to our site.

"In many cases, this means that terrorist content intended for upload to Facebook simply never reaches the platform.”

Screen grab taken from YouTube from undated footage issued by Islamic State militants showing a masked jihadi with a British accent mocking David Cameron in a purported new Islamic State video showing the execution of five men accused of being spies for the UK
Screen grab taken from YouTube from undated footage issued by Islamic State militants showing a masked jihadi with a British accent mocking David Cameron in a purported new Islamic State video showing the execution of five men accused of being spies for the UK

Ms Bickert also said that technical advances have enabled the company to develop more effective means of deep-diving into textual analysis.

“We have recently started to experiment with using AI to understand text that might be advocating for terrorism,” she said.

“We're currently experimenting with analysing text that we've already removed for praising or supporting terrorist organisations such as ISIS and Al Qaeda so we can develop text-based signals that such content may be terrorist propaganda.

"That analysis goes into an algorithm that is in the early stages of learning how to detect similar posts. The machine learning algorithms work on a feedback loop and get better over time.”

Some of the activity will be handled from Facebook's Irish base, which is set to expand to over 2,000 people next year. The counter-terrorism move comes after British prime minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron called on tech companies to do more to tackle extremist content online.

However, Ms Bickert told Independent.ie that the initiative is part of a longstanding company policy and not the direct result of recent calls from leaders such as Theresa May.

“We remove this content primarily because it's not okay to have it on our site,” she said.

Women light candles following a vigil in central Manchester. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
Women light candles following a vigil in central Manchester. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

“That comes from us and the policies we've had for years. Recent attacks have made people question what we should be doing to stand up against radicalisation but our commitment is long standing.

"This is something that we have cared about for a long time.”

Ms Bickert said that the company is to continue recruiting so that it has more human moderators to decide on issues too nuanced for artificial intelligence systems.

“We increasingly use AI to identify and remove terrorist content, but computers are not very good at identifying what constitutes a credible threat that merits escalation to law enforcement,” she said.

“We also have a global team that responds within minutes to emergency requests from law enforcement.”

This, she said, includes a growing number of dedicated specialists.

“At Facebook, more than 150 people are now exclusively or primarily focused on countering terrorism as their core responsibility,” she said.

“This includes academic experts on counterterrorism, former prosecutors, former law enforcement agents and analysts, and engineers. Within this specialist team alone, we speak nearly 30 languages.”

Read More: Online jihad: the war to stop radicalisation

She claimed that the company is taking strong new measures to sniff out fake accounts that are created by recidivist offenders.

“We've been able to dramatically reduce the time period that terrorist recidivist accounts are on Facebook,” she said.

“This work is never finished because it is adversarial, and the terrorists are continuously evolving their methods too.

"We're constantly identifying new ways that terrorist actors try to circumvent our systems and we update our tactics accordingly.”

However, Ms Bickert said that this won’t mean giving up the keys to encryption on services such as Whatsapp.

“We know that terrorists sometimes use encrypted messaging to communicate,” she said.

“Encryption technology has many legitimate uses, from protecting our online banking to keeping our photos safe.

"It’s also essential for journalists, NGO workers, human rights campaigners and others who need to know their messages will remain secure. "Because of the way end-to-end encryption works, we can’t read the contents of individual encrypted messages.

"But we do provide the information we can in response to valid law enforcement requests, consistent with applicable law and our policies.”

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