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Global Effort Begins To Stop Social Media From Spreading Terrorism

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to reporters at a news conference on Wednesday. She announced New Zealand and France will lead a global effort to end the use of social media as a tool to promote terrorism.
Phil Walter
Getty Images
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to reporters at a news conference on Wednesday. She announced New Zealand and France will lead a global effort to end the use of social media as a tool to promote terrorism.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced that she and French President Emmanuel Macron will lead a global effort to stop social media from promoting terrorism in the wake of recent attacks that devastated New Zealand and Sri Lanka.

"This isn't about freedom of expression; this is about preventing violent extremism and terrorism online," Ardern told reporters at a news conference in Auckland on Wednesday.

She described how the white supremacist gunman in Christchurch, who killed 50 people at two mosques in March, had no right to livestream the attack. Wearing a camera attached to a helmet, he broadcast his shooting spree on Facebook; the company later removed the video. "What we're trying to tackle here is a global issue and therefore I think requires a global response," she said.

Macron and Ardern plan to host a meeting with world leaders and tech company executives in Paris on May 15, alongside a Tech for Humanity meeting of digital ministers from leading industrial nations.

Ardern says their efforts will uphold the principles of a free Internet, but Adrian Shahbaz, a research director for the D.C.-based watchdog Freedom House, worries where the discussions could lead. "There is this tendency after large-scale, national security crises and terrorist attacks to overreact to the problem," he tells NPR.

In the rush to address the massacres, Shahbaz says, leaders could enact laws and regulations that infringe on people's privacy and freedom of expression. "One of the ideas Jacinda Ardern mentioned was perhaps delaying any livestreaming. The fear we have is that we're sort of sleepwalking towards a future in which all social media posts are filtered prior to being posted."

At least 21 countries blocked social media between 2017 and 2018, according to Freedom House.

In Sri Lanka, the island nation still reeling from the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks that killed more than 350 people at churches and hotels, the government chose to shut off Facebook and Instagram to prevent false information from spreading online.

Sri Lankan authorities used the same tactic in 2018 to stop anti-Muslim rumors and doctored images, after the misinformation incited riots in the country.

Shahbaz says the shutdown in response to Sunday's bombings may have prevented people from communicating with loved ones, seeking shelter and accessing accurate information. "We should be treating the root cause of the problem rather than its symptoms," he says.

Robert Pape, a University of Chicago professor specializing in international security and the director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats, says the Paris summit is a good step but that terrorism experts should be invited.

That's because social media has become "the centerpiece" in spreading terrorism, Pape says.

"Social media offers opportunities to Islamic terrorists, to white supremacist terrorists, and even school shooters for the amplification of themselves, glory for themselves, in ways that no other media platform does."

The Sri Lankan government blamed local militant group National Thowheed Jamath for Sunday's massacre and said its members received international help.

ISIS claimed responsibility on Tuesday for the coordinated explosions, showing a video of the alleged attackers pledging allegiance to leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Pape says that is "almost surely the case," in line with the group's April declaration that it was beginning a campaign of vengeance against the international coalition that defeated their territorial entity in Iraq and Syria.

International terrorist groups commonly cooperate with local groups, Pape adds. Local suicide bombers carry out the international group's mission, and in return, they receive "glorification" from the videos, photos and stories the larger organization disseminates online, he says.

Raffaello Pantucci, a counterterrorism expert at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London, says the trends of terrorism are grim. "The violence has become the message as opposed to a message which is being advanced using violence."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sasha Ingber is a reporter on NPR's breaking news desk, where she covers national and international affairs of the day.