Freshman Dem finds voice in fight against online extremism

Freshman Dem finds voice in fight against online extremism
© Greg Nash

Government efforts to combat online terrorism have largely stalled in the U.S., one year after footage of a white supremacist massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, went viral across the world's largest social media networks.

But freshman Rep. Max RoseMax RoseAlarm grows over Americans stranded in Yemen amid pandemic Moderate House Democrats introduce bill aimed at stopping China from exploiting coronavirus pandemic Republican Nicole Malliotakis wins New York primary to challenge Max Rose MORE (D-N.Y.), an Army veteran and the youngest man in Congress, is one of the few lawmakers to consistently press tech companies on preventing white extremists from using their platforms to recruit and radicalize young people in the U.S. and abroad. 

“I’m sick and tired of hearing, ‘Social media is a problem, we’ve got to do something, they should do better,’ ” Rose told The Hill during an interview in his Washington, D.C., office. “If they do not deal with terrorism as an industry, the industry will die.”

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“Done!” he exclaimed, punctuating the point with his hands and raised eyebrows. As he spoke, Rose’s ring, which he had been playing with, popped off his finger.

Rose, the head of the House Homeland Security counterterrorism subcommittee, over the past year has pressured Silicon Valley giants to take steps aimed at cutting off the deluge of terrorist and white supremacist content circulating online.  

He has criticized Facebook for auto-generating pages related to al Qaeda, highlighted the limitations of artificial intelligence tools to detect such content, lambasted tech executives as "technocratic elitists," and urged the industry to pour more resources into its counterterrorism efforts. 

Rose has shifted the goal posts in the U.S. for combating terrorism in the digital age, industry watchers say, as the country grappled with multiple mass shootings, often perpetrated by young white men radicalized in the darkest corners of the internet. 

“He’s taken a leadership role on addressing online terrorism,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonHouse lawmakers to launch probe into DHS excluding NY from Trusted Traveler Program Cuomo says Wolf, Cuccinelli violated oath of office and should be investigated FEMA head: 'We have a ways to go' on having enough PPE MORE (D-Miss.). “He’s championed the conversation [and made it] broader than what it used to be.” 

In the process, Rose has aggravated civil rights activists, who want him to go further, and struggled to win over Republicans, who worry counter-extremism measures will censor right-wing voices, highlighting the difficulties in tackling internet-enabled terrorism, particularly white extremism.

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“It’s always easy to criticize the first gladiator in the arena,” said Brian Levin, the director of the nonpartisan Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.

The March 15, 2019, mass shooting in Christchurch was seemingly designed to go viral. The shooter, a 28-year-old with ties to neo-Nazi groups, successfully livestreamed the attack for 17 minutes on Facebook after posting a viral manifesto on a fringe platform. YouTube, Facebook and other top social media websites were caught flat-footed as the livestreamed footage of the nightmarish attack flooded their services, sometimes as quickly as one upload per second. 

The episode was followed by numerous copycat shootings in the U.S. and elsewhere by white men connected to hateful online forums.  

World leaders including President TrumpDonald John TrumpOklahoma City Thunder players kneel during anthem despite threat from GOP state lawmaker Microsoft moving forward with talks to buy TikTok after conversation with Trump Controversial Trump nominee placed in senior role after nomination hearing canceled MORE blamed the spate of terror attacks on Silicon Valley’s largest companies. 

“We must recognize that the internet has provided a dangerous avenue to radicalize disturbed minds and perform demented acts,” Trump said in August, after a shooter in El Paso, Texas, seemingly inspired by the Christchurch attacker, posted a white supremacist manifesto online before killing 22 people and injuring two dozen. 

But policymakers around the world have since struggled to implement effective legislative solutions to curb online terrorism and extremism. 

In the U.S. particularly, it is difficult for the government to do anything about online extremism without running into First Amendment concerns. After Christchurch, French President Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel MacronFrance to require coronavirus tests for those entering the country from US EU leaders reach trillion deal on coronavirus recovery package Fire engulfs Nantes Cathedral in France, prompting an arson investigation MORE and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern led the “Christchurch Call,” the largest-ever campaign against online extremism and terrorist content, attracting support from seventeen countries and every major U.S. technology company. But the White House declined to sign on, citing free speech concerns. 

The issue is further complicated by the fact that there is no one global definition of “terrorism,” let alone “extremism” or “hate speech,” terms that are treated differently by every social media platform and country. Conservatives in the U.S., including Trump, have traditionally balked at efforts to sweep up “extremist” content, claiming it often results in disproportionate right-wing censorship. And civil liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have pushed back on efforts to put the government in control of curbing speech at all. 

Rose, a moderate member of the Problem Solvers Caucus who flipped his deep-red Staten Island district, is trying to carve out a legislative path to navigate those First Amendment concerns. He says he is focused on “terrorism,” rather than the more amorphous categories of hate speech and extremism.

“I am purposefully, very intentionally, focusing on terrorism,” Rose said, a point he raised multiple times during the sit-down. “Terrorism is where we’ve got to be focusing our energies because there’s the most potential for bipartisan action.” 

Rose is trying to expand the definition of "terrorism” to include a cadre of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups with global ties, a proposal that has gained ground in the wake of last year’s shootings. Earlier this month, he introduced a resolution pressing the State Department to designate qualifying violent global white supremacist groups as foreign terrorist organizations, a move that could allow the government and tech companies to do more about white extremists with tentacles on U.S. soil. The State Department is now reportedly considering applying the label to one of those groups. 

Over the past year, tech companies have also taken action after pressure from Rose and fellow lawmakers. Facebook stopped hosting links to the fringe social media platform tied to three mass shootings after calls from Rose, and Twitter took down Hamas and Hezbollah-affiliated accounts flagged by Rose and fellow lawmakers. Twitter said threatening or promoting terrorism is against its rules, noting in a statement to The Hill that it “regularly engage[s] with members of Congress on challenges pertaining to technology and terrorism, including the office of Congressman Rose.” 

Most noticably, Rose has been the loudest voice in Congress demanding that the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) — the consortium of U.S. tech companies tasked with countering online terrorism and extremism — become a formal, independent organization with dedicated staff and a brick-and-mortar building.  

“In the immediate aftermath of Christchurch, they were bragging, ‘We have the GIFCT' ... so we kicked the tires on the GIFCT a little bit,” Rose said. He said they found the group was little more than a shared database to help the companies keep track of particular terrorist content, but it lacked a budget, dedicated staff, or a physical location. 

Now, after significant global pressure, the GIFCT is slowly building out into an independent nonprofit organization and is close to hiring an executive director.

Rose has paired those efforts with legislation, the Raising the Bar Act, which is co-sponsored by eight Democrats, including Thompson. It would direct the Department of Homeland Security to designate a lead institution to administer a voluntary program to score how well tech companies handle terrorist content, an approach that requires buy-in from the industry and mostly takes control out of government hands. 

The program is modeled after a similar system in the European Union, which requires the companies to submit to audits around how they’re handling “hate speech” — an approach that could never fly in the U.S.

“I think what he’s doing is very realistic, and it makes sense for the American context,” said Lara Pham, the deputy director of the Counter Extremism Project, which helped advise Rose’s office on the bill.

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“I want [the tech companies] to sign onto the Raising the Bar Act,” Rose said, accusing those of not supporting the bill of “supporting terrorism.” 

"I’m not satisfied until they endorse that legislation," he said, adding he "cannot wait" to have a public conversation about why the companies are not in favor of "the American people knowing how well [they] do at taking terrorist content" off their platforms. 

The bill is facing resistance from the tech industry. A Facebook spokesperson said the company has reviewed the legislation and offered feedback and a spokesperson for the Internet Association, Silicon Valley's top trade group, told The Hill they are "actively reviewing the bill." But the bill still has not received explicit endorsements from tech companies or Republicans months after it was introduced. 

Rep. Mark WalkerBradley (Mark) Mark WalkerPence confidant helps 24-year-old beat Trump-backed candidate Rubio to introduce bill allowing NCAA athletes to make money from name, likeness Democrats press OSHA official on issuing an Emergency Temporary Standard MORE (N.C.), Rose's Republican counterpart on the counterterrorism panel, said he has raised privacy concerns about the legislation during multiple meetings with Rose's office.

And House Homeland Security Committee ranking member Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersHillicon Valley: Tech CEOs brace for House grilling | Senate GOP faces backlash over election funds | Twitter limits Trump Jr.'s account The Hill's Coronavirus Report: INOVIO R&D Chief Kate Broderick 'completely confident' world will develop a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine; GOP boxed in on virus negotiations The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Barr's showdown with House Democrats MORE (R-Ala.) said he has "serious First Amendment concerns with the 'Raising the Bar Act' as currently drafted."

"We all agree it’s important to address calls to violence online, but I’m concerned the current legislation doesn’t meet that challenge,” said Rogers.

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A Rose spokesman said, “We’re continuing to work with colleagues and industry to advance Raising the Bar and are encouraged by the ongoing process."

Rose isn’t the only member of Congress focused on the nexus between technology and extremism. A separate bill from Thompson, the House Homeland Security chairman, would create a government-led commission to tackle "online extremism” more broadly.

That legislation also met criticism from civil rights groups, sources familiar told The Hill, over concerns about privacy and disproportionate surveillance of Muslim Americans. Neither Rose nor Thompson’s bill has been marked up by the committee yet.

The challenge is as pressing as ever. One year after Christchurch, videos of the attack are still circulating on Facebook, according to screenshots provided to The Hill by Eric Feinberg, an online extremism researcher who has been working with Rose's office. Twitter still hosts virulent anti-Semitic posts and ISIS propaganda continues to fall through the cracks on Instagram, despite the company's policies.

Rose’s efforts could be interpreted as personal. He is the first Jewish person to represent his Staten Island district, and the neo-Nazi groups that he has called out regularly refer to him as the “Jew Max Rose” on the very social media platforms he is concerned about.

Ali Soufan, a top counterterrorism and national security expert who met Rose when he testified before the House Homeland Security Committee last year, told The Hill the two became friends after they came “under attack by white supremacist groups.”  

One group, The Base, posted a recruitment video that featured Rose and Soufan’s faces intermingled with images of an AK-47 and a Star of David.

“We said, ‘Hey, let’s get together and fight back,’ ” Soufan said. He and Rose recently penned a New York Times op-ed about designating those same white supremacist groups as foreign terrorist organizations, pointing out they operate similarly to ISIS or al Qaeda.

Members of white supremacist chat groups on Telegram, a messaging app favored by extremists, have targeted Rose over his background. In January, one user posted a screenshot of Rose’s Wikipedia page, which details his Jewish background. 

“Every single time,” the user wrote, according to screenshots shared with The Hill, a common refrain from white supremacists identifying Jewish people online. 

Levin said the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism has observed an increase in violent threats toward public officials, and Rose exemplifies the "crest" of that. “We’re seeing an uptick in political violence and political intimidation going on now,” Levin said.

Rose brushed off questions about whether he’s afraid of the threats. “The notion of the private sector not getting on board with this sensible legislation [the Raising the Bar Act], that’s far scarier than anything the neo-Nazis have said about me,” Rose said. 

“I am not going anywhere on this issue," he added.

Updated at 9:08 a.m.