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Digital tools allowing extremism to flourish around the world

QAnon adherents, anti-government militias, sovereign citizens and jihadist and white supremacist groups have co-opted emerging communication technologies in a way that has security agencies such as the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation concerned.

Non-state actors are using encrypted messaging applications that provide a cloak of secrecy to their activities that include the dissemination of propaganda, recruitment of new adherents as well as planning and executing activities that may include acts of extreme violence.

Extremist groups’ use of these technologies has meant that law enforcement and intelligence agencies can’t observe certain activities and conversations of persons of interest online. ASIO has told parliamentary committees that its work in looking at violent extremists irrespective of their ideological views is being stifled by their use of encrypted messaging platforms.

ASIO director-general Mike Burgess has told hearings of various parliamentary committees that the threat posed by various groups is great and that the inability to track things more precisely is frustrating nine out of 10 priority counter-terrorism cases.

Burgess told Senate Estimates in October that he believed encrypted messaging platforms shouldn’t be beyond the rule of law where lawful access to material posted or promulgated by persons of interest is concerned. “They shouldn’t be safe havens through which people can promote radicalisation or engage in and discuss matters of violent extremism, for example, in a way that is deniable to law enforcement under warrant having access to such communications,” he said.

ASIO’s struggle is consistent with international intelligence agencies that would like to prise open the secretive world of encrypted messaging applications to prevent the planning and execution of acts of extreme violence. Jihadist groups such as al Qaeda and Islamic State have used encrypted apps as a preferred communication tool, with action being taken in recent years by administrators of one prominent encrypted platform to remove accounts affiliated with supporters of Islamist ideology.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center in the US monitors how extremist activity has morphed. Its July 2020 report on encrypted messaging application Telegram said the platform had started to kick accounts affiliated with Islamist activity off their servers.

Europol and Telegram began working together in November 2019 to eradicate channels promoting jihadist propaganda. Telegram publishes a daily update called ISIS Watch that reports how many accounts or bots affiliated with Islamists were removed on any given day. Telegram administrators have removed 205,799 Islamist-affiliated accounts between January and October this year.

In Australia, Telegram, Apple and Google are making it harder for users to search for specific far-right group channels that disseminate propaganda online. Apple and Android devices won’t allow specific channels to be shown on the downloaded version of Telegram. Administrators of extremist channels, however, provide instructions to existing followers so they don’t lose subscribers.

It is, however, more difficult for new people to find extremist channels. The January 6 incident at the White House prompted activity from big tech and server companies when it emerged messaging platform Parler hosted accounts of individuals that were actively agitating for others to attend.

The lives of politicians were threatened on that day, and Parler ran messages urging people to ‘Hang Mike Pence’. A call to lynch the former US vice president recalls scenes described in a fictional novel regarded as core reading in white supremacist and anti-government circles.

Parler was back online some months later and made available again on Apple and Google stores after promising to boost its forum moderation.

The challenge of de-platforming extremists

The removal of an entire platform, extremist groups and individuals from online forums highlights the notion of de-platforming as a tool to disrupt extremist activity and make the task of recruiting new followers harder.

Professor Greg Barton from Deakin University says the practice of bumping people or groups from online forums and encrypted messaging applications limits the growth and influence of extremist groups irrespective of the ideologies involved.

“We want to try to manage things in such a way that the chance for somebody to recruit or inspire violence is diminished as much as possible,” Barton says. “You don’t want them to run free on big platforms like Facebook or YouTube. It’s easier said than done to catch everything as it comes up and stop it happening.”

Barton says removing prominent extremists from platforms such as Facebook or Twitter doesn’t mean they would be silenced forever. They will find a new digital home where extremist die-hards congregate.

The most active far-right accounts on a particular encrypted messaging application give subscribers access to electronic copies of propaganda, audio and video files, and even messages from group leaders crafted to rally supporters and help them create content.

 Bans on individuals, groups and extremist propaganda are among the measures being contemplated by the extremism and radicalism inquiry conducted by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. However, a counter-terrorism expert warns that bans have limitations.

Levi West, director of terrorism studies at Charles Sturt University, says attempts to limit access to extremist propaganda are unlikely to deter individuals already on the hunt for material that accord with their thinking. “It’s a constant challenge,” he says. “People who are determined to get access to extremist material will find a way to do so.

“We can, and have, made it harder, but if someone is determined they will find a way of accessing propaganda irrespective of the obstacles — digital or otherwise — that governments or big tech companies place in front of them. We can’t eradicate ideas, regardless of how objectionable they might be.”

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