Terrorism has gone viral. The livestreaming on Facebook of the March attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand that news reports said left more than 50 people dead was the latest in a string of terrorist attacks designed for the digital age. More than a dozen world leaders met in Paris last month to sign the Christchurch Call, a joint, voluntary pledge with tech companies to “eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online.” Policymakers in Australia and the European Union have separately moved forward with aggressive strategies to remove and prevent the dissemination of violent extremist content. The challenge is to make sure these efforts succeed without undermining reporting or putting journalists at risk of being considered criminals.
Journalists rely on original online source material, some of it violent, to do their work. “Why is it that we heard so much about the online documentation of the Syrian war?” former CPJ Middle East researcher Jason Stern said in an interview. “Well, the usual way of reporting, to be there in person, see with [your] own eyes, is no longer possible because it is too dangerous.” Stern, who worked at CPJ from 2013 to 2016, reported on the 2014 murders by Islamic State operatives in Syria of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, which proliferated online after they were videotaped as part of the militant group’s propaganda and recruiting efforts. “I noticed a huge shift in what it was like to research potential war crimes after the ISIS execution of Foley and Sotloff,” Stern said. “[Social media platforms] became much faster and finding and removing content.”
According to experts and company officials CPJ has spoken with at various consultations and events, mainstream social media platforms stepped up their efforts to remove videos linked to the militant group following the global proliferation of those videos. But removing such videos can impede the ability of journalists to report, verify, and cross-reference information, so there are troubling implications with the social platforms deciding what is newsworthy.
Regulations formalized in the wake of Christchurch may complicate the that decision-making, even with some exceptions carved out for journalists:
- The EU is preparing to adopt new regulations to prevent the dissemination of terrorist content online. If passed, the rules would require companies to take down offending content within one hour of receiving notification from a national authority, with fines of up to four percent of annual revenue for systematic failure to comply. Content disseminated for “journalistic” purposes should be protected, and removal should take into account “journalistic standards” in cases “where the content provider holds an editorial responsibility,” the European Parliament said.
- The Australian parliament rushed through the Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material Act 2019, which amended the 1995 criminal code to criminalize the sharing of audio and visual “material depicting terrorist acts, murder, torture, rape, or kidnap.” Though the law exempts people working “in a professional capacity as a journalist,” it still raised widespread concerns about its potential to chill press freedom, imposing fines for both individuals and corporations, and potential jail terms of up to three years for failing to expeditiously remove or cease hosting violent content; it does not specify what “expeditious” means.
Yet government regulations struggle to address the transnational nature of online content. The multinational companies that signed the Christchurch Call already cooperate in initiatives aimed at restricting the proliferation of terrorist content online, like a database of content that has already been removed via the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), according to Facebook. Companies can consult the database to prevent similar content from being uploaded, but a small alteration to an image or video may stop it from being detected, according to company representatives with whom CPJ spoke at recent roundtables in Washington D.C. and Tunisia. After the Christchurch attack, Facebook said it reacted within minutes to remove the video; Google said it was “working vigilantly” to do the same on YouTube, and Twitter suspended one of the suspect’s accounts, according to the Washington Post. But an internet search conducted from Washington, D.C., in June revealed that the video remains easy to find online.
And other sites may not be so willing to cooperate. Frederick Brennan, founder of the 8chan forum, the self-described “darkest reaches of the internet,” has described active content moderation of problematic content as futile in the past.
Regulation may also introduce additional, conflicting guidance for publishers. Last year the Australian outlet news.com.au, which local journalists described to CPJ as one of the country’s top news sites, said it had taken down an article about Islamic State recruiting under threat of legal sanctions after an Australian regulator said it was promoting terrorism. The press council, a self-regulatory body, separately determined it was in the public interest.
Australian journalists said the incident illustrated their concerns about the law on sharing violent material and the challenges of government regulation of content.
“Journalists generally agree that there is a need to limit the use of videos of terror attacks as propaganda material and to protect the public from unnecessary distress from violent content,” Mark Maley, editorial policies manager for news at ABC (Australia) told CPJ via email. But, “as a general principle we’d always prefer to see self-regulation and social pressure governing media behavior,” he said. “Criminal sanctions on the media, even if well-intentioned, will limit media freedom.”
The law was proposed and passed within five days, prompting widespread criticism, including from two UN experts who expressed concern over the “deeply problematic” amendment and its “unusually compressed timeline.” Australian officials with whom CPJ spoke refused to comment on the record because they were serving a caretaker function until a new government could be formed following the mid-May election, and did not respond to a follow up request in June.
“The risk is that you rush this through, it’s highly problematic, and it has unintended consequences,” said Julie Posetti, senior research fellow at the University of Oxford-based Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, and a former political journalist in Australia.
Posetti and other observers told CPJ the new amendment’s exemption for professional journalists was insufficient. “Interpretations and definitions in legislation that define journalists and journalism very narrowly here [may be] then used to limit protections and entitlements,” Posetti said, noting that Australia lacks constitutional protections for the press.
“The best outcome would have been for the government to apply an exemption for news reporting services,” Georgia-Kate Schubert, head of policy and government affairs at News Corp Australia, told CPJ. “We need to be able to report the news.”
“The government did try very hard to carve out enough rules for journalists to be able to cover some of these events and we are grateful for that, but it still puts the onus on the journalist or publisher to decide if they are committing criminal [acts],” Bridget Fair, CEO of FreeTV Australia, an industry body which represents member television broadcasters, told CPJ. Executives at FreeTV and News Corp criticized the law before its passage.
Fair said that television outlets are required to abide by codes of practice to maintain their licenses, and that online platforms could benefit from similar regulation. “There does need to be some greater regulation of online platforms.”
Yet the Christchurch attack illustrates that the discrepancy between how journalism outlets and online platforms are treated under law could also chill cooperation, according to Maley of ABC. “We worked cooperatively with Facebook under extraordinary pressure to remove the video and hundreds of hateful messages from our Facebook pages,” he told CPJ of the aftermath of the killings.
“Working under the shadow of criminal sanctions will make productive and cooperative relationships between news and social media companies more difficult if there’s a perception that the social media companies and the news media are operating under different rules.”
Editor’s note: The fifth paragraph has been corrected to reflect that the EU is preparing to adopt new regulations.