Washington Post's stunning look at ISIS, social media and the First Amendment

As a rule, GetReligion readers do not respond well to posts that praise articles in the mainstream press. Readers do not leave comments or rush to share these links with their friends on Facebook or Twitter.

Over the past 11 years, I've spotted similar patterns when I have written posts about articles that are quite long. That's pretty easy to understand, since we are all busy and in this digital age we are bombarded with information from many sources, each competing for our attention.

The folks who do journalism research also know that American readers, as a rule, are not very interested in international news. We are more driven to read stories about conflicts, controversies and culture wars in our own back yard.

I know all of that. However, what you are reading right now is a positive post about a very long article in The Washington Post focusing on the tensions that the Islamic State's campaigns in social media are causing for digital entrepreneurs who are, as a rule, fierce defenders of the First Amendment. Please read this Post article and do that mouse-click thing you can do, passing this URL along to others. This is a very important topic if you care about journalism, free speech and freedom of religion.

Why does it matter so much to me? As faithful readers know, I am -- as a professor -- fascinated with how technology shapes the content of the information in our lives. With that in mind, let me ask this: How many of you have used the online Wayback Machine that allows you to flash back in time and look at archived webpages? Now, how many of you have pondered the impact of the nonprofit Internet Archive in San Francisco on ISIS communications efforts?

The archive was founded in 1996 to provide the public with free access to millions of documents and videos and clips and Web pages -- almost anything that has been on the Web. It is probably best known for its Wayback Machine. So far, it has captured and stored nearly 150 billion Web pages.
In the past year, the Islamic State has created several accounts on the archive and has been using the site to host video and audio productions, online magazines and radio broadcasts, according to terrorism experts.
Internet Archive’s office manager, Chris Butler, told The Post that his organization is removing videos of beheadings and executions whenever it becomes aware of them, either during routine maintenance of the site or after outside complaints. But unlike sites such as Facebook and Twitter, the archive does not have a flagging mechanism. Butler said the group is working on a system that will enable users to help identify and report problematic content.

In terms of complexity and flexibility, the Wayback Machine is nothing compared to the giants of social media, like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. As researchers have long noted, consumers want these Internet products to be as "free" as possible in every sense of the word. That causes problems, of course, when it comes to issues such as child pornography.

Now there is ISIS. Here is the crunch passage in this massive Post piece, which is part of an ongoing series called "Confronting the 'Caliphate.'"

As the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, continues to hold large parts of Iraq and Syria and inspire terrorist attacks in more and more countries, it has come to rely upon U.S. social-media companies to summon fresh recruits to its cause, spread its propaganda and call for attacks, according to counterterrorism analysts. ...
The social-media savvy of the militant group is raising difficult questions for many U.S. firms: how to preserve global platforms that offer forums for expression while preventing groups such as the Islamic State from exploiting those free-speech principles to advance their terrorist campaign.
“ISIS has been confronting us with these really inhumane and atrocious images, and there are some people who believe if you type ‘jihad’ or ‘ISIS’ on YouTube, you should get no results,” Victoria Grand, Google’s director of policy strategy, told The Washington Post in a recent interview. “We don’t believe that should be the case. Actually, a lot of the results you see on YouTube are educational about the origins of the group, educating people about the dangers and violence. But the goal here is how do you strike a balance between enabling people to discuss and access information about ISIS, but also not become the distribution channel for their propaganda?”
Some lawmakers and government officials say the companies are not going far enough.

Facebook has been a leader in cracking down on content issues of all kinds, which is a good thing or a bad thing depending on whether it's the toes of your favorite cause that are getting mashed. Twitter has been more freewheeling. ISIS is also diving into new forms of social media, such as Instagram and Tumblr.

The article stresses that ISIS also represents a different kind of digital threat than "old" terrorist networks such as Al-Qaeda -- which specialized in hidden communication in "password-protected forums and message boards on the Internet." User access was tightly controlled, which raised fewer First Amendment issues and limited the ability of, let's say, idealistic teen-agers in Detroit to access the dangerous information.

Oh, and how do Internet giants build search robots that can detect the difference between ISIS materials and those of groups researching the tactics of the Islamic State?

Journalists! This is about you. Have you been the the Newseum Pulitzer Prize photo gallery lately?

Another challenge for the companies: It is often difficult to distinguish between communiques from terrorist groups and posts by news organizations and legitimate users. Internet freedom advocates also note that much of what groups such as the Islamic State are posting can be seen as part of the historical record -- even though many of the photographs and videos are horrific.
They point to the memorable 1968 Associated Press photograph of South Vietnam’s national police commander shooting a suspected Viet Cong fighter in the head on a Saigon street. They wonder how that Pulitzer Prize-winning image, which came to symbolize the chaos and brutality of the Vietnam War, would be handled in the age of social media and modern digital warfare.

I could go on and on. If I have a complaint about this piece, it's that this article didn't dig into a related topic that is just as troubling, if not more so. If we are talking about efforts to win caliphate converts, some of the most "dangerous" content in the ISIS digital campaign is not about death and violence -- it's rooted in a specific vision of Islam, faith and family.

How do Internet giants build screening devices that can detect a theological vision? Ponder the First Amendment implications of that task.

Read it all and pass along the URL. Please.

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