Trusting social media companies on national security

Last Friday, the US government invited some of the largest tech companies in Silicon Valley to a closed-door meeting to discuss how to disrupt the online activities of terrorists, particularly by Daesh (Islamic State) terrorists. The companies that participated in the meeting included Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Microsoft, LinkedIn, YouTube, Yahoo, PayPal and more.

A pre-meeting briefing document sent by the government to companies stated: “We are interested in exploring all options with you for how to deal with the growing threat of terrorists and other malicious actors using technology, including encrypted technology… Are there technologies that could make it harder for terrorists to use the internet to mobilize, facilitate, and operationalize?”

According to an article in The Guardian “one area of discussion was over how a system used by Facebook to deal with users at risk of suicide could serve as a model for identifying terrorist sympathizers. The social network’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, walked government officials through how Facebook currently enables users to flag people who appear to be posting suicidal thoughts, a person familiar with the conversation said. The government officials in the room wondered if such a system could be used to flag terrorist content or detect a user who appears to be radicalizing, added the person, declining to be quoted on the record.”

Facebook’s system of identifying people posting suicidal thoughts is based on crowd-sourcing. It depends on friends and relatives flagging the person to Facebook who is posting suicidal thoughts. In turn, Facebook sends notifications encouraging them to seek help.

While this works in case of preventing suicide, it doesn’t in case of terrorism for two reasons.

First, it leaves the government entirely dependent on social media companies for information and action, while giving it no transparency into the technology company’s mechanism and working. Terrorism and online radicalisation are a national security issues, and an arrangement like this would leave the government a minor and dependent-partner in tackling it.

Second, Facebook and other social media companies depend on people to report problematic posts. However, while people may be quicker at reporting their loved ones, if they were having suicidal thoughts (which is an individual problem), they may not in case of radicalisation, which is often a community problem.

OHPI’s hate reporting tool has been built keeping in mind both these aspects. Our hate monitoring tool allows anyone to register and report items posted online that they think are promoting terrorism / violence / threats to national security. These can be directly shared with the government. The system can currently support reports from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube but can be scaled up to include other social media platforms too. Thus, the government is no longer dependent on different social media companies to receive and pass on information but can get the necessary oversight and transparency over all major social media companies via one platform. In effect, they can get people to report problematic reports directly to them. Even if they choose to work with the social media companies, the tool can help them with compliance and making sure that the social media companies are indeed taking such reports seriously.

Secondly, as a charity, OHPI works with different communities already. We build connections with them and their leaders because we also help them combat online racism and religious vilification directed at them on social media.  Hence, it has greater potential to gain the community’s trust, necessary if they have to report their own community members, because it is not solely built to monitor them but also allows them to report hate and violence directed at them.

The Australian Federal Police is already a keen supporter of It was an official partner in our campaign against online anti-Muslim hate last year Spotlight on Anti-Muslim Internet Hate which was powered by

We hope that other arms of the government (and governments world over) recognise the potential of the tool.

You can sign into directly using your Facebook login. Alternatively, you can register using an email account. Instructions on how to register are here, and how to report items to the system are here.

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