Social Media’s Violence and Misinformation Problem

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Social media platforms have been designed to both keep users engaged, and to modify user behavior through advertising. This is no big secret, it is social media strategy 101. Anyone can engage social media advertising services.

New research suggests that social media has contributed to an increase in political violence through the uninhibited spread of misinformation through social media. For example, the unfolding human rights catastrophe in Myanmar and the persecution of the Rohingnya coincided with the arrival of Facebook.

Yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg announced changes to Facebook that would help curb suspicious content, including those that uses misinformation to provoke violence:

“One of the most important responsibilities we have as a company is to keep people safe and stop anyone from abusing our service

In 2016, in addition to identifying these … threats, we also faced coordinated information operations with networks of fake accounts spreading divisive content and misinformation.”

That Facebook are taking steps to improve detection of ‘bad content’ is positive. But it really is too little too late.Facebook isn’t the only social-media platform that contains hate speech. It also has proliferated on Twitter.

Social media virality often sees the most polarising, nasty messaging gain attention – developed with the intention of increasing post engagement by encouraging emotions to spin out of control. The post below, which appeared in my twitter feed this morning, is a clear example of this (at the time of writing 27k people were talking about the post).

This kind of posting is an example of social media interaction designed to incite emotions to increase engagement. Read the comments:

Social media companies don’t  know the true identities of their advertisers

It is well established that social media companies know more about us than we know about ourselves. And that this knowledge is used by companies to market products and ideas to us, to ‘manipulate’ us in to making a purchase for example. However, social media companies don’t always know the true identities of their advertisers:

New research shows a correlation between Facebook and violence

Karsten Müller and Carlo Schwarz, researchers at the University of Warwick, studiedanti-refugee attacks in Germany: 3,335 over a two-year span. In each, they analyzed the local community by a range of variables. But one thing stood out. Towns where Facebook use was higher than average, like Altena, experienced more attacks on refugees.

“That held true in virtually any sort of community — big city or small town; affluent or struggling; liberal haven or far-right stronghold — suggesting that the link applies universally.”

Fake News: Virality in Developing Countries

In developing countries, access to information technology has increased communication. When I was living in Indonesia I received multiple messages aimed at creating hysteria, paranoia, and moral panic around religious and social minorities. The origin of the messages, which spread rapidly through communities, was always unknown.

A high-profile case in recent times was a false claim circulating on social media in  that Beijing was seeking to wage biological warfare against Indonesia. The viral hoax prompted the Chinese embassy to issue a statement saying that the reports were “misleading.”

The unfolding human rights catastrophe in Myanmar

Since the end of August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees have fled escalating violence in Myanmar to Bangladesh where they are staying in refugee camps.

According to an August 15 report, Reuters found more than 1,000 examples of posts, comments and pornographic images attacking the Rohingya and other Muslims on Facebook. Social media companies continue to fail to address this problem.

In March, a United Nations investigator said Facebook was used to incite violence and hatred against the Muslim minority group:

The platform, she said, had “turned into a beast.”

Four months after Zuckerberg’s pledge to act, here is a sampling of posts from Myanmar that were viewable this month on Facebook:

One user posted a restaurant advertisement featuring Rohingya-style food. “We must fight them the way Hitler did the Jews, damn kalars!” the person wrote, using a pejorative for the Rohingya. That post went up in December 2013.”

The Problem

The problem here isn’t what Mark Zuckerberg says it is.

He says Facebook has “been investing heavily to improve safety, security and privacy – and to defend against these coordinated inauthentic campaigns…”

Because “authenticity matters.”

The problem is, in part that:

“We are all carrying around devices that are suitable for mass behavior modification.”

Social media platforms have been designed to engage and encourage users to act. Anyone can engage these services. We are seeing the impact of this in political cultures and actions of political violence across the world.

Facebook’s Claims

An analysis of 1,400 successful ad campaign case studies found that campaigns with purely emotional content performed about twice as well (31% vs. 16%) as those with only rational content. The New York Times viral content study showed that some negative emotions contribute more to virality than others. Most specifically, the negative emotion of anger. The problem is inherent to the social media business model, which involves finding customers (i.e. advertisers) who intend to modify the behavior of users within their targeted demographic (i.e us laypeople browsing our timeline). And to use the platform to manipulate them into some form of action or response. Yet Facebook claims that it doesn’t have the resources to curb the problem:

“As a company we don’t have all the investigative tools and intelligence that governments have, which makes it hard to always attribute particular abuse to particular countries or groups.”

I call bullshit. Facebook has more investigative tools and intelligence than governments will ever have. Facebook has engaged in mass behavior modification without the consent of its users. They have the resources and the technology, but they do not have the will and are also likely  frightened about the implications of admitting some fault.

The Problem With Hanson-Young’s (and Brandis’) Response to the Burqa Episode

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There has been a lot of discussion in Australia about Senator Pauline Hanson’s burqa stunt. Many of those who have criticised her actions have argued that the act in itself presents a threat to national security – in part,  because of the potential to offend the sensibilities of Muslims. 

Green’s Senator Sarah Hanson Young, on a popular morning breakfast program, stated that Senator Pauline Hanson needs to reflect on the fact ‘security experts’ believe her actions could promote extremism (which experts by the way?). 

“You are doing ISIS’s work for them,” Senator Hanson-Young told the Seven Network on Monday.

“You are putting the entire country at risk.”

Senator George Brandis similarly said Australia’s half-million Muslims – the “vast majority of [whom] are good, law-abiding Australians” – are vital to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

These arguments reflect common misconceptions about terrorism and radicalisation in the West.

As Yassir Morsi, Muslim writer an academic stated (in a Facebook post),” It’s an argument often used to conceal that terrorism has more to do with wars and Western support for authoritarian Muslim leaders.”

The Brandis and Hanson-Young arguments reduce the ‘Muslim community’ to national security allies. Why is that we ask Muslims to participate in whole of community counter terrorism work, when within other crime types, the religious and ethnic backgrounds of those engaging in criminality are largely ignored, let alone discussed in such political and public forums? 

Omar Sakr’s tweet sums up the issue well:

“So glad we ordinary Muslims are valued, in the absence of default humanity, as intelligence officers, otherwise pretty sure we’d be screwed.”

https://twitter.com/OmarjSakr/status/898362057019408384

There needs to be a ‘radical’ shift in the way Western liberal democracies conceptualise Muslim communities in relation to counter terrorism and national security.

One the biggest failings of the  Australian Government’s ‘muslim engagement’ schemes is association of whole ‘Muslim communities’ with national security.

Australian Senators should know better, with their knowledge of national security issues and high level of education, than to continually associate the Muslim community with national security in public platforms.

 

Indonesia’s move towards banning Hizbut Tahrir

The Indonesian government recently stated they will move towards banning Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI). Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Wiranto announced the decision on Monday during a ministerial meeting examining mass movements and organizations in the country amid concern about the growing public presence of radical Islamist groups (of which HTI are but one of many).

I have noticed a few reports that the government has actually banned the organised. These reports are false. While the government can initiate the banning process, the decision is up to the courts (given recent protest actions, can you imagine the protests movements that will erupt around this move? They have already announced a huge protest in response).

Here’s what Wiranto told reporters:

“The President has instructed us to review all mass organizations to identify those with values that contradict Pancasila or the unity of the state. […] As a legally operating organization, the HTI has no positive role in achieving the national goal,” 

“HTI has also promoted values that contradict Pancasila and the 1945 Constitution. The activities of the group have also collided with the public, thus poses a threat to the unity of the republic [of Indonesia]. For this reason, the government has decided to ban the HTI,” he said.

Why HTI?

On one hand, the move seems excessive and contradictory, considering senior members of the police, military and government maintain close relations to other hardline Islamist groups who appear at odds with the values of the Pancasila and the Indonesian state. Yet there has been concerns that HT have been secret backers/organizers for IS in the past. At least in Tunisia (I cannot find a link to the article but will provide one later). Hizbut Tahirir however have publicly insisted that “the alleged caliphate pronounced by ISIS is Islamically illegitimate.”

So banning HTI in the context of countering radical ideologies and groups is one thing, but banning it for being against the Pancasila ideology is another. And why HTI, when there are a wide range of Islamist organisations advocating anti Pancasila ideologies, and promoting the implementation of Khalifa?

And if HTI aren’t the only ones advocating for Islamisation, why the focus on them for a ban, and why do they stand out in the wider context of organised Islamism* in Indonesia?

HTI rally, image from Tribune News
HTI rally, image from Tribune News

 

Masdar Hilmy’s study of Islamism and democracy in Indonesia found that Islamist presence, discourse and social manifestations in post-New Order Indonesia are as “wide ranging as Islamism itself.” [1] As Hilmy explains, in relation to democracy, Indonesian Islamism falls into two identifiable streams of thought:

“The first … is represented by groups that operate outside the formal political system. These groups reject democracy and do not participate in formal party politics, but are politically active, if only informally. This [is] a utopian variant of Islamism [in Indonesia] … At a rhetorical level, their reason for not immersing themselves in the political party system has to do with the struggle to maintain the purity of their faith in fulfilling the holy duty of “commanding good and forbidding wrong.” [2]

At a practical level however, the attitude of the state towards each group has a lot to do with strategic choices.

The Front Pembela Islam (FPI) and the Forum Jihad Islam (FJI) are placed into this category by Hilmy, as well as other Islamist groups like Hibut Tahrir (HTI) and Majelis Mujahideen Indonesia (Indonesian Mujahideen Council – MMI).

A second category comprises those that operate from within the system to achieve political change. These groups accept procedural democracy and are described as meliorist variants of Islamism. Hilmy’s study identifies these groups as being primarily represented by the Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (Prosperous Justice Party – PKS), an Indonesian political party.[3]

For the groups associated with both categories, the idea of power is of primary importance, as is the idea that Islam should be actualized in the public sphere. However, the way these groups go about this is very different, and the strategic choices violent ormas like the FPI and FUI have made reflect their social, economic and political objectives more than their rhetorical objective to maintain the purity of the faith of Islam.

Other issues

In the past, calls for the banning of other Islamist groups have been met with two general responses from the Indonesian state: A) this would be unconstitutional (and reminiscent of New Order authoritarianism), and B) that hard-line Islamists in Indonesia should be able to continue to channel their “symbolic” voice through “legitimate” and “constructive” public agendas so that they are not drawn to terrorist organisations.[4] Why have these attitudes towards the group suddenly changed?

Internationally, other countries that have banned HT include Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, most of the rest of the Middle East except for the UAE, Lebanon and Yemen. It is also banned in Russia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and central Asian dictatorships). That would put Indonesia in some fairly undemocratic company.

I doubt that a ban of  HTI would be useful. Like past calls for the banning of the organisation in Australia, it might just represent a political smokescreen intending to distract from other issues – like government figures cavorting with other hardline, and violent, groups during their election campaigns.

Unlike the FPI (and the FUI and many others), HTI have not engaged in widespread acts of violence. They appeal to a relatively small section of the population who reject democracy and the Pancasila. But do they actually pose a threat to the state? Could the banning of HTI force them underground leaving them vulnerable to targeting by terrorist organisations?

————————————————————————————————————————-

*Islamist is a problematic term, yes, but insofar as HTI and others are advocating for the Islamisation of society (or even the khalifa-isation – is that even a word?), the term will have to do for now.

1] Masdar Hilmy, Islamism and Democracy in Indonesia: Piety and Pragmatism (Singapore, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2010), 153.

2] Ibid.

3] Ibid 83.

4] Panggabean et al., Policing Religious Conflicts in Indonesia, 58. See also Damayanti, Ninin.“Kita butuh preman,” Tempo News, February 21, 2009, accessed September 2, 2016 https://m.tempo.co/read/news/2009/02/21/055161373/kalla-kita-butuh-preman

 

Can Education and Vocational Training Play a Role in Countering Violent Extremism? 

Discussion about incorporating CVE initiatives within Australia’s education and vocation sectors has re emerged. While Education and vocational training have been shown in some particular cases to reduce engagement in VE, this has only been shown to work in countries experiencing violent conflict. In these cases, the application of CVE has been be specific and justified. 

Blanket approaches to CVE are problematic for several reasons. Primarily, they have been shown to increase distrust of authorities and alienate minority communities. These approaches are also impossible to evaluate, as practitioners are to measure whether this type of program has had any effect. When governments and international organisations are measuring the impact of the activities, if the aim is to counter violent extremism, then that should be what is measured. As Martine Zeuthen explains:

“Some policy makers and practitioners do not wish to target their interventions towards individuals and communities at risk of recruitment and radicalisation but rather wish to have inclusive programmes. In other words their end goal is to contribute to building an inclusive society rather than managing the present problem of radicalisation and recruitment to violent groups. I respect and see a value in this approach as a type of long term development intervention. But the more inclusive the programme, the more difficult it is to show that the intervention prevented violent extremism.  The further we move from the problem the more tangential the intervention is and the harder it becomes to measure any effect.”

For more on this issue, see Countering Violent Extremism – can Education and Vocational Training Play a Role? – http://wp.me/p2mGCr-wH

Thoughts on CVE and Foreign Aid

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Image: Devex 

Foreign aid has undergone several shifts in recent years. As someone involved with the development sector in Pakistan and Indonesia for the past decade, I have noticed the gradual ‘securitisation’ of development programs. Although governments have always used international aid and development to further their state’s interests in the context of geopolitical rivalries, the presence of security language and programing in international aid (in particular – countering violent extremism – CVE) is changing the development landscape.

As new forms of internationalised violence emerge, there has indeed been a justified need for greater focus on security threats within foreign aid. The need to address the emergence of violent extremism has seen the blurring of the worlds of international development and international security, as international aid programs increasingly look to address development and security at the same time. This will change the international development sector and will result in greater collaboration between security and development specialists.

But CVE remains a controversial field.

Two problems recur in the literature on CVE: First, there is some literature that suggests CVE policy “struggles in its efforts to explain terrorism or to provide findings of genuine … value.”[1] Second, there is a lack of empirical evidence that CVE has worked and, of more concern, there is some evidence that in some cases it has actually caused harm.

Due to its relative infancy, CVE in foreign aid is an understudied field. To some extent, this helps explain the lack of data.

On March 1 2017, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs announced a new framework, Development Approaches to Countering Violent Extremism: Policy Framework and Guidance Note, to “guide the delivery of development assistance to counter violent extremism in developing countries, bolstering existing Australian Government efforts.” It acknowledges that there is no agreed international definition of what violent extremism is, and that it is “a complex phenomenon,” the form of which differs “across and within countries.”

There have been a range of successful CVE initiatives in Pakistan, however ‘violent extremism’ in the country continues to surge. Furthermore, when CVE is approached as an adjunct to CT activity, there is the issue of state security forces using inappropriate force in response to terrorism and security threats. On the one hand, CVE is promoted to reduce conflict and insurgency in conflict affected, non Western societies; on the other hand, security forces in these societies have been known to use CT as a method of suppressing opposition. In the context of Pakistan, CVE has been flouted as a method which the society could “overcome the challenge of growing extremism, [with programs that] comprise of individual- focused de-radicalisation, and environment-focused counter-radicalisation strategies.”[4] But how can we decide which communities to to target, and how effective can such programs be when it is already widely acknowledged that CVE is a clumsy and contradictory field? Even if the research community could agree on what a successful CVE program looks like — and more research needs to be done in this area — there is a real concern that the CVE is being promoted as too broad a CT activity without there being any clear evidence of its efficacy. Furthermore, when there is a change of government, what will happen to these initiatives? For there to be any long-term measurable impact there needs to be continuity. This has been a problem for the Australian Government in recent years. As Terrence Wood et al point out, post-2013 changes to Australian aid having “wide-ranginimpacts and have led to deteriorating overall aid quality” so far.[5] 

It is too early to make definitive comments about the direction of the aid program. However it appears that in substantive terms, aid is being framed as security risk management, yet the aid budget continues to decrease.[6] It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the next five years.

 

[1] Andrew Silke, “The Devil You Know: Continuing Problems with Research on Terrorism”, Terrorism and Political Violence 13, no. 4 (2001), pp. 13.

 

[2] Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, Countering Violent Extremism in Indonesia: Need for a Rethink, 30 June 2014 IPAC Report No.11, 1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Abdul Basit, Countering Violent Extremism: Evaluating Pakistan’s Counter-Radicalization and De-radicalization Initiatives, IPRI Journal XV, no. 2 (Summer 2015): 44-68, 44.

[5] Gauging Change in Australian Aid http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/app5.173/epdf

[6] Varghese, P (2016) 2016 Australasian AiConference Speech. viewed 19/11/201<http://dfat.gov.au/news/speeches/Pages/2016-australasian-aid-conference.aspx>

Sub Rosa Episode 3: understanding terrorism in Indonesia, with Noor Huda Ismail

Episode 3 of our podcast

Sub Rosa

Noor Huda headshotFor this episode, Andrew spoke to Noor Huda Ismail, an Indonesian author, film-maker, activist, and PhD candidate.

Huda set up several non-government rehabilitation programs for terrorists released from jail in Indonesia, to help prevent them from becoming involved in violent extremism again. He’s now based in Australia, studying the involvement of Indonesians with the “Islamic State” in Syria and Iraq.

The episode begins by discussing Noor Huda’s journey into this world. We talk about his teenage years in a boarding school in a central Java that was run by Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Baku Bashir. Sungkar and Bashir were members of an Indonesian jihadist movement called Darul Islam and would become the co-founders of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

Several students in this school were recruited into JI, trained in Afghanistan, and later carried out bombings in Indonesia in the early 2000s. But Huda’s life went in a very different…

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Sub Rosa Episode 2: Muslim women and the War on Terror, with Shakira Hussein

The second episode of the Sub Rosa Podcast is now online 🙂

 

Sub Rosa

Shakira HusseinIn this episode, Kate spoke with Shakira Hussein, a researcher at the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute and author of the recently released book From Victims to Suspects: Muslim Women Since 9/11.

We discussed her new book’s main theme – the transformation of Muslim women in the public eye since 9/11, from being helpless victims awaiting rescue, to becoming potential threats to be monitored and kept under control.

The episode covers her research on Muslim women in Pakistan, and how the War on Terror has effected the lives of women there. We then discuss how counter terrorism (CT) and countering violent extremism (CVE) has changed the aid landscape in Pakistan, before discussing recent developments in the Australian government approaches to CVE, including the dilemmas of funding community programs with CT money and the potential that CVE policy-initiatives targeting the Muslim community have for securitising them and further alienating some…

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