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What are we actually supposed to do about online extremism?

Theresa May has suggested that online extremism should be fought and that world leaders should combat it.

Well, yes. The difficulty is that politicians will tend to talk in soundbites, and this is never more evident than when they are talking about technology. Over the last few days we’ve seen the threat that encryption will stop (our parent publication the New Statesman has an excellent piece on why this is unworkable here, think “banks would have to re-tool completely”) and internet companies (presumably social networks in particular) need to pass their data on extremism to the authorities.

Which is very good until you consider that the idea is predicated on social networking companies sitting on a hive of illicit data from terrorists. If they spot it, and if they believe the threat to be genuine, there’s no evidence to suggest that they condone it as it stands.

Facebook and online extremism

Facebook is the largest social media company and earlier this week, before the Manchester attack, the Guardian released details of its moderation policy. The summary doesn’t make much of extremism as there appeared to be no need to do so, but it’s full of grey areas and poor resources. Much of its moderation is outsourced to smaller companies whose operatives often have ten seconds to make a snap judgement call on an image or post.

Meanwhile MPs are calling for fines for social media companies that don’t take extremist content out of circulation. That’s a fine for companies with 2bn users, who have had to subcontract their moderation in the first place, ands whose moderators have constant split-second decisions to make. The situation isn’t ideal but is it fair to penalise the companies themselves for growing successfully?

Nobody is saying that nothing should be done. However, politicians such as the prime minister in many ways have the easy job (if facing the possibility of a shrinking rather than increasing majority according to today’s polls can be described as “easy”). They get to speak in broad brush terms about something needing to be done, they use the passive voice because they aren’t going to have to do it.

Working out exactly what can be done and by whom is another order of magnitude.