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.

Indonesia: countering a message of hate

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A civil society CVE initiative in Indonesia – Koperasi Cinta Damai Wahid Institute (KOCIDA WI)

I recently wrote for The Lowy Institute about challenges in counter terrorism and countering violent extremism (CVE) in Indonesia. Original article here.

After the Bali bombings of 2002, security forces within the Government of Indonesia, like their Western counterparts, worked towards incorporating “ideological” or “soft” approaches into counterterrorism portfolios. This approach later became commonly known as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), and Indonesia has produced some groundbreaking CVE initiatives. As a recent Interpreter article explained, youth and civil society–led approaches have achieved particular success.

Yet despite progress in recent years, major issues persist. A lack of understanding as to how successful deradicalisation works continues to pose challenges, as do coordination issues within government agencies responsible for CVE.

But perhaps most importantly, despite the growth of the CVE sector, radical groups in Indonesia continue to spread messages of violence and hate, unimpeded.

Indonesia’s initial steps towards CVE were introduced during the Megawati era, when the then president appealed to Muslim organisations Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama to join Indonesia’s war on terror by “promoting the image of Islam as a peace-loving and cooperative religion”. The commitment increased significantly under president Susilo Banbang Yudhoyono, who after the second Bali bombing in 2005 stated that Indonesia could no longer take “freedom, democracy and tolerance … for granted”. Part of this effort included the further promotion of CVE.

In the early stages, the Indonesian National Police (POLRI) introduced a deradicalisation programthat aimed to “convert” imprisoned terrorists, who would also preach moderation to their colleagues. Althoug this and other programs like it had some success, they were underfunded and too ad hoc to sustain. Detachment 88, an Indonesian Special Forces CT squad, contributed to POLRI’s efforts by developing an intelligence program to target terrorist networks, with the aim of reintegrating prisoners back into society; however, this program appears to have had limited success.

The BNPT, Indonesia’s national agency for combating terrorism, has made a range of contributions to national ideological efforts to counter terror. Yet despite the agency’s large budget and personnel pool, some assessments judge its performance harshly. According to a recent Australian Strategic Policy Institute study, the BNPT continues to have “weak analytical capacity on terrorism trends, poorly devised policies and … misguided … community counter-radicalisation campaigns”. These campaigns have argued that radicalisation and extremism could be countered through the promotion of “moderate Islam”.

Yet, as continues to be found, there are no links between increased outward piety and propensity for terrorism. And despite claims to the contrary, we still don’t know exactly what causes “radicalisation.”

But there are opportunities in Indonesia to learn more about who is at risk of committing acts of terrorism. More could be achieved if official knowledge about terrorism and radicalisation was consolidated, with unclassified information disseminated to the civil society practitioners who do so much of Indonesia’s meaningful CVE work.

As the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) argues, the design of prevention programs could be improved by focusing more specifically on those involved in terrorism, rather than on whole swathes of the “Muslim community”. In particular, Indonesian CVE would benefit from more systematic studies of the networks uncovered to date, particularly the case dossiers of the almost 800 individuals indicted since 2002 on terrorism charges.

Yet a lack of coordination among the government agencies responsible for CVE in Indonesia has also remained a persistent obstacle. In 2012 the BNPT created the Forum Koordinasi Pencegahan Terorisme (FKPT) to help coordinate a national approach. Yet these forums are regularly criticised as “exclusive” and “too high level”, or for missing the target audience by involving regional elites and leaving out those for whom issues of radicalisation are pertinent, particularly young people.

The lack of coordination can lead to other problems in assessing the effectiveness of CVE programs. The online “counter narratives” approach to CVE, undertaken in partnership with PR companies, has gained popularity in Indonesia in recent years. The range of tenders and grants for these programs means that this kind of activity has become somewhat profitable for CVE start-ups. Yet in Indonesia, as Solahudin recently pointed out, social media “is yet to become a major tool for recruitment … [because] recruitment offline is still possible”.

Positive interventions and programs have been driven by civil society groups. Yet the overall effectiveness of CVE in Indonesia has been held back by government ineffectiveness, including vague or ad-hoc deradicalisation programs, and failed attempts at prison management reform.

The lack of meaningful central coordination and understanding, combined with the fact that it remains relatively easy for extremist groups to “spread messages of hate and violence”, means CVE in Indonesia still has a long way to go.

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.

 

From Vigilantism to Terrorism?

On Friday April 4, Anti Terror Unit Detasemen Khusus 88 Antiteror (Densus 88) arrested three terror suspects in Lamongan, Jawa Timur. One of the suspects allegedly possessed a Front Pembela Islam (FPI) uniform and literature.

I have been asked on a few occasions about the implications of militia and vigilante violence for counter terrorism. Reports that suggest an alleged terror suspect arrested in these raids was part of the FPI, reviving discussions in Indonesia about the issue of possible cross-pollination between terrorist and militia groups. I address it briefly in this post.

There are very distinct differences between Indonesia’s violent Muslim militia groups and terrorist organisations. Although violent ormas (militia) do represent a form of Islamic militantism, their violence does not target the state. This is what differentiates it from the violence of terrorist groups such as Jemaah Islamiyya and IS.

Yet members of violent ormas still have the potential to cross-over to more extreme forms of violence. As Heiduk has pointed out, it is possible that violent ormas (militia) could be radicalized and drawn to jihadist terrorism.[1] It is also possible that terrorist ideologies and tactics could merge, formally or informally, with the agendas of violent ormas as “a new variant in Indonesia’s spectrum of radical Islamists”.[2] As Carnegie suggests:

The ‘grey area’ between the radicalism [of groups like the Front Pembela Islam (FPI)] and outright terrorist activity … provide fertile conditions for incubating a transformation of intolerance and radical thinking into more home-grown forms of violence and terror.”[3]

A study by the Setara Institute has also suggested that membership of violent ormas has the potential to create pathways to radicalization,[4] providing an ideological ‘conveyor belt’ for those with the potential to become terrorists.[5] The International Crisis Group (ICG) also noted the potential for future threats to emerge if violent ormas were radicalized, citing an example in West Java where a group had begun to use different weaponry, moving from using “sticks and stones in the name of upholding morality and curbing ‘deviance’ to using bombs and guns.”[6]Yet the analyses provided by ICG also acknowledge that Indonesia’s Islamist preman and violent ormas differ inherently from terrorist organizations, primarily because of their very different aims.

Groups associated with transnational organizations such as utopian Salafis, radical internationalists, and those such as Jemaah Islamiyya and IS believe in the implementation of a global Islamic Caliphate focusing on “internationalist and revolutionary aims.”[7] Islamist ormas or preman groups like the FPI  are locally based, nationalist in orientation, and certainly “not interested in implementing an Islamic caliphate,”[8] or challenging the Indonesian state (sometimes they act in concert with the police in morality operations).

Instead, these groups are more concerned with establishing greater power at the street-level.[9] In light of this, groups such as the Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defender’s Front – FPI)  remain “out of the boxes” commonly used in post 9/11 analyses of contemporary Islamist movements. [10] But because of the tendency of militia to use violence to achieve their political goals, it must be recognised that their members could be vulnerable to recruitment to terrorist organisations and movements.

Andrew Zammit and I will talk more about this issue on our podcast Sub Rosa next week. 

[1] Felix Heiduk, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Radical Islam in Post-Suharto Indonesia,” International Journal of Conflict and violence 6, no. 1 (2012), 37.

[2] Ibid

[3] Paul James Carnegie, “Is Militant Islamism a Busted Flush in Indonesia?,” Journal of Terrorism Research 4, no. 2 (September 24, 2013), accessed April 28, 2016, doi:10.15664/jtr.563, 19.[4] Setara Institute. “Organisasi Radikal di Jawa Tengah & Yogyakarta: Relasi dan Transformasi” (Jakarta: Setara Institute, 2015), http://www.scribd.com/doc/113570933/ringkasan-pdf#scribd p. 38

[5] International Crisis Group (ICG), “Indonesia: From Vigilantism to Terrorism in Cirebon.” Asia Briefing N°132 Jakarta/Brussels (26 January, 2012), accessed 2 May, 2016, http://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-east…/indonesia-vigilantism-terrorism-cirebon, 1.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ismail Hasani, The Faces of Islam ‘Defenders’ (Jakarta: The Setara Institute, 2010), 20.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Richard Robinson, “Political Economy and the Explanation of Islamic Politics in the Contemporary World,” in Between Dissent and Power: The transformation of Islamic Politics in the Middle East and Asia, ed. Khoo Boo Teik, Yoshihiro Nakanishi and Vedi Hadiz (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). 22.

[10] Mark Woodward et al., “The Islamic Defenders Front: Demonization, Violence and the State in Indonesia,” Contemporary Islam 8, no. 2 (December 28, 2013), doi:10.1007/s11562-013-0288-1, 9.