Social media giants restructure counterterrorism effort into independent group with staff

Social media giants restructure counterterrorism effort into independent group with staff
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A consortium of social media giants including Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and YouTube on Monday announced it will be formalizing its counterterrorism efforts, forming an independent group with a dedicated staff to coordinate the takedown of extremist content across the world's top platforms. 

The companies said they will announce their revamp of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) during a meeting at the United Nations General Assembly on Monday. The companies are set to meet with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel MacronTrump, NATO chief to meet at White House Macron: NATO experiencing 'brain death' Man arrested in France mosque attack MORE to discuss what they are doing about the extremist content that proliferates across their networks.

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"At this important convening, GIFCT is announcing it will become an independent organization led by an Executive Director and supported by dedicated technology, counterterrorism and operations teams," the companies said in a statement early Monday evening. 

The GIFCT was formed by Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter and Google's YouTube in 2017, just as the companies were facing intensifying criticism over discoveries that al Qaeda and ISIS were using their platforms to recruit and radicalize mostly young, disenfranchised men. Videos of violent beheadings went viral, prompting regulators and lawmakers to turn up the heat. 

But so far, the GIFCT has mainly consisted of a database that allows the companies to share digital footprints of terrorist content they identify. It has not been a brick-and-mortar building or an official organization. 

The companies on Monday announced that is going to change. And a trio of top companies will join them in their efforts — Amazon, LinkedIn and WhatsApp will join the GIFCT's new independent organization. LinkedIn is owned by Microsoft, and WhatsApp is owned by Facebook.  

The new GIFCT will be led by an independent executive director, who will engage with an operational board and advisory committee, according to the announcement. 

The organization will set up working groups to address "topics such as positive interventions with respect to radicalization, algorithmic outcomes, improving the multistakeholder Crisis Response Protocol and legal challenges to data sharing." 

The restructured GIFCT is certain to run into a slew of legal and organizational challenges. Importantly, there is not one global definition of what defines "terrorism" — each country has its own list of entities that it considers terrorists or extremists. And the United States in particular has struggled to maintain a definition of terrorism that includes white extremists, which law enforcement agencies have said are a pressing current threat to the homeland. 

Earlier this year, all of the top social media companies found themselves overwhelmed as video footage of a mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, spread across their platforms at lightning speed. In the wake of the Christchurch shooting, which left 51 worshippers at a pair of mosques dead and dozens more injured, the companies signed on to the "Christchurch Pledge," a commitment to more seriously take on violent extremism's online footprint. 

Since then, there have been multiple mass shootings that have implicated fringe online communities. 

In April, Australia passed sweeping legislation that could result in enormous fines and even jail time for executives if social media companies fail to remove “abhorrent violent material” in a short amount of time. 

And in the U.S., lawmakers on the House Homeland Security Committee have been scrutinizing the role of social media in perpetuating real-world violence.

Rep. Max RoseMax RoseHillicon Valley: Critics press feds to block Google, Fitbit deal | Twitter takes down Hamas, Hezbollah-linked accounts | TikTok looks to join online anti-terrorism effort | Apple pledges .5B to affordable housing Twitter takes down Hamas, Hezbollah-affiliated accounts after lawmaker pressure FBI chief says racist extremists fueling one another, making connections overseas MORE (D-N.Y.), who chairs the committee's counterterrorism panel, has been pushing the companies to formalize the GIFCT. In a statement on Monday, he vowed to "keep pushing" the newly structured effort.

"I’ve long called for the GIFCT to be transformed and scaled up in order to combat the spread of terrorism online because frankly, the status quo wasn’t working," Rose said. "I’m encouraged that social media companies are taking this challenge seriously and I believe this announcement is an important step in the right direction—but make no mistake, this is just the beginning." 

"I will continue pushing to make sure that the GIFCT is proactive, adequately funded, and expands its membership and partnerships with the public and private sector," Rose said.