Reading time: ~ 8 min.
For the beginning an – unfortunately not too – fictitious scenery: A wedding party sets off with a motorcade to a celebration. Bride and groom sit in a mighty SUV, they wave, four more cars follow. The air is clear, the cars leave the place in the bright sunshine. Suddenly several bright flashes follow one another, dense smoke covers the scenery. Someone shouts “Allahu akbar!”, Allah is great. Then the recording ends.
We’d know it right away: This is sinister terrorist propaganda showing off the power of violence. Or mabe it isn’t? What if it were an important piece of evidence, for example against the drone war, if it were a piece of enlightenment? Against the war propaganda of a regime that claims to target only terrorists in its campaign? Perhaps it would be a document of innocence that turned against state terror.
The algorithms of the video portal would nevertheless classify it as terror propaganda – or agents of the regime would report it as such. 40 minutes after its release, the video would have disappeared and no more questions would be asked as to what had happened to the people on it. The memory of their fate would be erased. – All this purely fictitious, of course.
Terror works …
Let’s be clear: Nobody (who is with clear mind) wants to know terror in the Internet supported or spread. Terror is a nightmare for those affected and our fear of terror is great. For years it has been dominant in our societies. That this fear is even irrationally large is due to the nature of terror. That’s what its purpose is.
Terrorism is above all a communication strategy. That is why the Internet has become such an important terrain for it. Terrorists want to “occupy the mind”. They want to force political, ideological or religious change through the impression of violence. And only this political calculation turns a criminal act of violence into terror.
Conversely, this political aspect leads to classifying almost all radical political attitudes as “terrorist” – as soon as they seriously endanger the existing political conditions. Even when they use peaceful means, such as civil disobedience. Such defamation of course serves the purpose of oppressing a movement with harder means – and to legitimise this externally.
That is why terror is a favourite toy of authoritarian governments: It is the background motive for state control and coercion. It creates a common opponent, it creates a common sense and distracts from inner contradictions. The mutual dependence of the “hawks” on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict is an example of this. Every peace politician here immediately becomes the target of terrorist violence – from either side. As cynical as it may sound to the victims: Terror would be far too often avoidable if serious efforts were made.
… but how can anti-terror work?
Political Europe is currently a main arena for regulations that the governments of the USA, Russia, India or China will not discuss very long. As difficult and tedious as it is to find a consensus, the EU at least tries to find constructive solutions. For example, the EU Parliament recently agreed on key points on how to deal with terrorist content. A very sharp proposal by the EU Commission could be mitigated in essential points. (We’ll see later, why this is a good thing.)
But it remains the rule: content suspected of terrorism must disappear within an hour. Even if it is a link that is typed into the commentary of a private blog at 4 in the morning. If not, draconian punishments threaten. And mind you: Only the suspicion is enough, the investigation will – if at all – take place later.
In an open letter of several NGOs to the European Parliament the authors formulated:
Instant removals: The Regulation empowers undefined ‘competent authorities’ to order the removal of particular pieces of content within one hour, with no authorisation or oversight by courts. Removal requests must be honoured within this short time period regardless of any legitimate objections platforms or their users may have to removal of the content specified, and the damage to free expression and access to information may already be irreversible by the time any future appeal process is complete.
Whether such legislation has any positive effect at all or simply has a negative effect on freedom of expression and freedom of the press has not yet been proven. Three of the UN special rapporteurs involved had also raised serious concerns.
Who determines what terror is?
Whether, for example, it falls into the category of “terrorism” to chain oneself to an important railway line is a matter of interpretation. Most people will not go along with this. Violence is also conceivable as a direct form of self-defence, for example when bulldozers move against one’s own housing estate. And finally, states take the right to spread fear and terror outwardly or inwardly, which is then classified more as war or civil war. The question of what terrorism is will be also a question of legitimacy.
However, we should not be satisfied with vague definitions when we use them to filter content from the net. When we stop the spread of ideas. When we suppress urgently needed information. Saudi Arabia is asking us to block “terrorist” content on the Internet? Well, what if it’s really about the secular opposition?
Of course there is also real terror – and not too scarce of it. And it can be so unbelievably cruel that under its impression we immediately forget everything analytical that we read here.
Without any sympathy: Terror is often the means of the (subjectively) powerless. There has been anarchist terror in Russia, Israeli terror in Palestine, black terror against whites in South Africa. There has been Chechen, Kurdish, Palestinian, Islamist terrorism. For each of these movements we may have a different view regarding their legitimacy. But this is not about an end that justifies the means for one side of the conflict. This is about a binding standard. Applying a clear, common definition of terrorism would be an important basis in the Internet, when it comes to sensitive goods such as freedom of expression.
And it goes even further: Even if terrorism could be effectively kept under control by means of filtering (which is anything but proven), an Interior Minister will not be satisfied with it. What exactly is worse about terror than e.g. psychopathic mass murderers, organized crime or child pornography? Drug trafficking, sedition and corruption are next on the list. Politicians always tend to turn the cogwheel of surveillance one notch further for their own legitimacy. And the idea of a fully controllable sphere of thought and opinion is just too tempting.
We have a lot to lose
Many ideas and political actors, to whom we owe much gratitude, were so radical or militant in their time that they were classified as subversive and terrorists by those in power. And this, of course, even if they did not use any violence, let alone terrorist means. Christianity was once one of them. Later, there were enlighteners, liberals, all kinds of nationalists (in Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Armenia, the USA, Latin America, India, China and many more). It happened to pacifists and feminists, social democrats and anarchists, atheists and believers, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, Angela Davis and Aung San Suu Kyi, communists and squatters, lesbians and gays, environmental and human rights activists, whistleblowers and many more. Where would we be today if the spread of their ideas had been effectively stopped?
Let’s be clear: People in power are susceptible to dilusions and biases, a drive to maintain power, and hostility towards groups. Even freedom heroes like Robert Mugabe or Aung San Suu Kyi can show a different face when in power. Right in the democratic Western Europe of the Cold War, governments have gone so far to even stage terror under false flag (Gladio) to turn their people against the left. If there is no terror, it must be invented. In Austria, which publishes data on illegal content to its national hotline, about 75% of the content reported as illegal was in fact perfectly legal.
Despite all reasonable scepticism against conspiracy theories, we should not blindly trust anyone who speaks of “terror”. Whenever a government has the powerful means of opinion-forming censorship at its disposal, almost certainly in crisis situations it will play the terrorist card and thus systematically suppress the opposition.
On the trigger
The decision as to what is to be considered terrorist content must not be left to the judgement of subordinate authorities or one-sided government interests. The temptation to call any threat to power, prosperity, national unity, etc. “terror” is too strong.
- China has repeatedly played the “terror” option in conflicts with Tibet, the Uighurs or the Falun Gong, while other conflict solutions would have been at hand.
- US whistleblowers are being disqualified as terror helpers – because what harms the government benefits the enemy.
- The actions of pussy riot or gay pride activists are regarded in Russia as “cognitive terrorism”, their spread is hindered and in some cases severely punished.
- The Saudi Crown Prince Bin Salman had tried to classify his arch-enemy Jamal Kashoggi as an Islamist terrorist (and Jared Kushner followed this argument) before calling his assassination “regrettable” shortly afterwards.
- Victor Orbán feels terrorized by foreign NGOs when he considers them too critical of his government.
- Turkish President Erdogan – still halfway legally elected – likes to disqualify all Kurdish organizations and all alleged Gülen supporters as terrorists and thus isolate them internationally.
- And the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had declared the Catalan separatist government to be terrorists, even though it had neither called for nor substantially led to violent actions.
In some of these examples, foreign governments or courts have contradicted, after the domestic political calculation behind it was all too obvious. Other cases are more difficult – especially when the classifying government is very powerful. Here it can be economically painful to maintain an attitude of integrity.
What to do?
1. Enable notice-and-takedown
Let’s just forget for a moment the picture of a classic judge. For the erasure of terrorist content requires a rapidly functioning legal system – which is currently still a contradiction in terms. Notice-and-takedown can only prevail against the (rightly condemned) upload filters if it reacts within a reasonable time. Not within an hour, but in 24 or 48 hours.
It is not the bitterly poor content moderators of the corporations who must ultimately be responsible for the decision, because they are known to tend to overblocking. But it must be judges who proceed according to a globally recognized procedure. So there will have to be a new, agile type of judge, maybe even people who do this work on a voluntary basis, like in Wikipedia.
2. An intelligent user-generated warning system
Terror can have a disturbing or violent effect in a very short time. In order to effectively shorten the uptime of terrorist content, a reasonably intelligent rating system by users can be installed. It can respond to the reputation of the person making the report in order to prevent targeted misuse. It can classify dubious content as a suspicious case and provide it with a preliminary warning.
The system can also register objections if other users say: No, this is legitimate material. Then the content can be classified as a controversial case until further notice. (By the way, similar mechanisms are conceivable for pornographic content, which will be discussed elsewhere).
3. Punish Overblocking
The suppression of freedom of expression is not a trivial offence, but a dangerous attack on democratic civil society. The – possibly well-intentioned – abuse of the censorship system by individuals, organisations or governments must be sanctioned. The more clearly an abusive political interest is, the sharper it has to become. This could range from a warning to account freezes to prison sentences or an indictment by an international court.
4. Clearly define terror and terrorist content
We need a robust and unambiguous definition of the terms “terror” and “terrorist content” in order to clearly separate legitimate deletions from politically motivated abuse of authority.
Of course, there are already definitions of terrorism and terrorist content.
E.g. this Definition by the EU Commision:
“Terrorist content” means one or more of the following information:
(a) inciting or advocating, including by glorifying, the commission of terrorist offences, thereby causing a danger that such acts be committed;
(b) encouraging the contribution to terrorist offences;
(c) promoting the activities of a terrorist group, in particular by encouraging the participation in or support to a terrorist group within the meaning of Article 2(3) of Directive (EU) 2017/541;
(d) instructing on methods or techniques for the purpose of committing terrorist offences.
But what exactly is meant by terror is not so easy to define. According to a UN resolution, violence or threat of violence should always be involved. And the EU defined it as follows in the Council Framework Decision of 13 June 2002 on combating terrorism:
Terrorist offences and fundamental rights and principles
1. Each Member State shall take the necessary measures to ensure that the intentional acts referred to below in points (a) to (i), as defined as offences under national law, which, given
their nature or context, may seriously damage a country or an international organisation where committed with the aim of:
— seriously intimidating a population, or
— unduly compelling a Government or international organisa- tion to perform or abstain from performing any act, or
— seriously destabilising or destroying the fundamental politi- cal, constitutional, economic or social structures of a coun- try or an international organisation,
shall be deemed to be terrorist offences:
(a) attacks upon a person’s life which may cause death; (b) attacks upon the physical integrity of a person;
(c) kidnapping or hostage taking;
(d) causing extensive destruction to a Government or pub- lic facility, a transport system, an infrastructure facility, including an information system, a fixed platform lo- cated on the continental shelf, a public place or private property likely to endanger human life or result in ma- jor economic loss;
(e) seizure of aircraft, ships or other means of public or goods transport;
(f) manufacture, possession, acquisition, transport, supply or use of weapons, explosives or of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, as well as research into, and de- velopmentof,biologicalandchemicalweapons;
(g) release of dangerous substances, or causing fires, floods or explosions the effect of which is to endanger human life;
(h) interfering with or disrupting the supply of water, power or any other fundamental natural resource the ef- fectofwhichistoendangerhumanlife;
(i) threatening to commit any of the acts listed in (a) to (h).
Such a catalogue – in addition to profound expert knowledge – would now have to be internalized by every content moderator, judge and decision-maker in order to answer the question of terrorist or non-terrorist content legally and fairly. Upload filters cannot do this. As it looks, there is still a bit of education to be done here – especially among politicians.
Thinking even further: Do we need a better press code?
Not only the social networks, but also the press and their echoes in the networks form a vital resonance space for terror. Terror is practically based on the mechanisms of the media and they play their part by simply doing what they always do: serving greed for sensation. Although we are entering comparatively clear terrain here, the effects of game theory prevent more effective self-control. In this way, the press meets the expectations of the perpetrators.
Ideas to change this would be
- A six-month moratorium for any public naming and illustration of the perpetrators. This would counteract a transfiguration with the usual imitation effects, while at the same time maintaining confidence in the investigations.
- A realistic classification of the threat instead of a hyperventilating sensational journalism that makes itself an accomplice. The actual dangers of terror should to be set in relation to those of multi-resistant germs or depressions, for example, and would have to be reflected at least approximately in the frequency of reporting.
- A regular thematization of the bias in disclaimers, as it has also been used for some time now for suicide topics.
- In the case of religious fanaticism, a stronger thematization of empty promises (paradise, etc.) with which fundamentalist ideologues work.
I’ll admit that sounds naive. Much like saying: “end corruption!”. And yet it is these kinds of agreements that people are capable of and that advance civilizations. If we manage to hold reasonably free, fair and secret elections, then in the long term we should also be able to learn in this field: Not to unintentionally turn our press and social networks into instruments of dangerous criminals.
Let’s not kid ourselves: Terrorist strategies would adapt. Perhaps they would try to become even more spectacular and tangible in their actions. But the immunization of the media society against the fluttering excitement curves of terror would be an interesting trend reversal.
If we could clear our eyes and get terror out of our heads, we would have gained a lot: New priorities, a demotivation of the perpetrators, a more developed civil society and room for the real reflexes that are appropriate in the case of rare, tragic events: Law enforcement, prevention and honest sympathy for the victims and their relatives.