Is All Extremist Content Online Created Equal? - VOX-Pol Workshop on the Impact of Content Regulation on Civil Liberties

November 10, 2017

VOX-Pol, an academic research network focusing on violent online political extremism, has recently held a workshop entitled  ‘Countering Violent Extremism Online and the Impact on Civil Liberties’ at the Berkman Klein Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard University co-organized by the Center for Media, Data and Society as part of the Center's research project conducted  by Kate Coyer, director of the Center’s Civil Society and Technology project.

The purpose of the workshop was to explore the challenges and opportunities facing actors engaged in countering violent extremism online, particularly the impact of content regulation on civil liberties.

For better or worse, "Countering Violent Extremism" (CVE) has become an industry unto itself, and a useful framework for considering the different – and often contradictory – responses from governments, companies, and civil society. The aim of the workshop was to better understand and critique the effectiveness of CVE strategies – broadly conceived – and consider their impact on freedom of expression and civil liberties. Attendees of the workshop, including representatives from UNESCO, UN-CTED, OSCE, Facebook, Microsoft, the Global Network Initiative, Harvard Law School, Columbia University, Dublin City University, discussed the myriad challenges around countering violent online extremism without undermining human rights.

Participants urged for a definitional clarity between “extremism” and “terrorism”, and for better consideration of the legal and jurisdictional concerns around the violent online extremism highlighting the lack of a central authority for dealing with extremism online and the different national understandings surrounding free speech. Participants argued that the lack of transparency and accountability of major social media and technology platforms add to the difficulties in countering violent online extremism, and it prompts the need for democratic and legitimate content-regulation processes instead of ineffective censorial approaches.  

The workshop also focused on the crucial need for better means of evaluation and sufficient metrics to measure the impact both of removing extremist content online and counter-narrative initiatives, as well as better means to interface with the many different sites of power. Another challenge is the lack of methods to assess the opportunities and challenges for countering extremism presented by advances in artificial intelligence (AI).

Participants agreed that there is strong potential in using insights from “big data” analysis, and that stakeholders need to build consensus against mandates for government censorship. In order to fight violent online extremism better, we need more transparency around government requested content take-downs, a robust appeal process and tech companies should refrain from private censorship. Policymakers shall take into account that the same things that make countering extremism online a challenge—the ability to connect to large numbers of people, the speed of the information flow, and the transparency of many online communications—also serve as opportunities for counter-speech and intervention.    

For more on the workshop, head over to Twitter where participants used the hashtag #VOXPolCVE to share ideas and takeaways from the sessions.