ATbar Incitement on the Internet: The Threat and the Response

Incitement on the Internet: The Threat and the Response

23/03/2017 | by Eshed, Gadi  

One-on-one[1] with retired police commander, Gadi Eshed, Associate at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and former commander of Tel Aviv’s Central Unit.

In honor of the publication of his article dealing with Lone Wolves on Social Media, we sat down for a discussion with retired police commander, Gadi Eshed, and received a glimpse into the challenges facing security forces in the field of incitement in the Internet era.

Incitement and propaganda on the Internet have become a central tool used by terrorist organizations for the spread of ideology, recruitment of operatives and psychological warfare. What is the scope of influence of incitement on the Internet? What is the significance of Internet incitement versus traditional processes of incitement and radicalization? And what are the challenges facing the Israel Police in coping with this phenomenon?

Gadi Eshed: Internet incitement holds significant weight in contrast to traditional incitement processes for one simple reason – the ability today to reach larger target audiences. Until the era of globalization, terrorism was local and relatively limited, but all of that changed with the flow of information on the Internet that enabled the almost complete nullification of territorial limitations. With the press of a button, it was suddenly possible to reach audiences that could not be previously reached. Two new central target audiences began to be exposed to this content with the Internet age and they became the two main targets of incitement with which the Israel Police, and all law enforcement and security agencies in Israel and in the western world, are coping today – secular youth and criminal offenders. The audience of secular youth finds justification, meaning and support for their “I” in online incitement materials. Young criminals are more sensitive to incitement materials and to this type of brainwashing. Therefore, for them the transition from criminal offender to ideological, intellectual offender is easier. “When you live 24 hours a day with thieves you are likely to become a thief, and when I was exposed to jihadist materials and to the injustices that the western world wreaks on the Muslim world, I became a jihadist”. This statement was made by a criminal offender who was convicted of murdering a police officer and his wife in France.

In terms of enforcement, it is very challenging to thwart terrorist attacks in the field by those with a criminal background, referred to in police jargon as “street cats”, as they are indeed known to the police but on the other hand they are always checking to see if they are being followed and they will even take precautionary measures that make enforcement difficult. The second audience is also dangerous since, in effect, no one knows them. Their existence is created from their exposure to incitement on social networks.

In addition to the many challenges facing the Israel Police in bringing online inciters to justice, there is disagreement between the courts that deal with inciters more lightly and the police, which seeks to increase the period of imprisonment. In your opinion, is more severe punishment indeed the solution to dealing with the phenomenon?

Gadi Eshed: During Operation Protective Edge and the wave of stabbing attacks, the punishment at the Jerusalem Magistrate Court, for example, against online inciters was 5-24 months, which is relatively low in relation to the period in question. In general, courts in the western world have difficulty prosecuting incitement. The inciters do not fit the classic criminal category with which the world’s democracies have learned to cope. Therefore, the legal process vis-a-vis those inciters on the Internet is not compatible with the new reality. One of the main failures stems from the nearly impossible task of locating a direct link between the perpetrator of the terrorist attack and incitement. Another failure stems from the norm that exists in the legal system regarding the method of determining punishment. As claimed above, a significant number of inciters on the Internet today are youth with no prior convictions. The legal system naturally takes into account the possibility of rehabilitation as well as considerations of deterrence. And herein lies the question of whether these rules of the game are appropriate for the new era? And if there isn’t a need for a different test? Despite the above, there is consensus that even if the prison time is increased the chances of it preventing incitement are very low. On the other hand, the opposite is also impossible to create. We cannot impose a five-month prison sentence and expect that this will deter inciters on the Internet. Today, the average level of punishment tends to give excessive consideration to the defendant and is still far from the balance point of the public interest of the deterrent effect.

57% of the jihadists questioned in a study carried out by the ICSR[2] asserted that they were imprisoned before their radicalization process began. Assuming that the period of imprisonment will increase, doesn’t the risk inherent in the radicalization process that takes place inside prison walls present a more significant long-term threat? Doesn’t the exposure of convicted inciters to a target audience of young offenders actually achieve the opposite outcome?

Gadi Eshed: The threat exists as long as there is no separation between criminal offenders and security offenders. In this instance, the significant threat is not from the inciters but rather from their target audience in prison since it is relatively easier to incite criminal offenders to commit terrorist operations. A criminal offender who becomes an ideologue and who undergoes the radicalization process in prison is more dangerous than terrorists like the lone wolf. Nashat Milhem, the terrorist who carried out the attack on Dizengoff Street, is a prominent example of this. The perpetrator, a convicted criminal, lived and worked in Ramat Aviv. He underwent a process of radicalization, seemingly a combination of incitement in prison and radicalization as a result of exposure to incitement on the Internet. In him, you can see the cool-headed classic criminal, according to the manner of planning, execution, retreat and "chutzpah" that he demonstrated during the attack.

The fight against incitement is held not only against the perpetrators themselves, but against the social media platforms that refuse to take responsibility for the content and to cooperate with the security agencies. This is a cross-border issue facing most of the world's security agencies. How do you think they should act towards media corporations?

Gadi Eshed: For a long period of time, social media corporations communicated the message that there is no technological solution for monitoring and filtering online content and absolved themselves of responsibility for incitement and propaganda. Nevertheless, lately we are exposed to the fact that it is only a function of unwillingness stemming from economic interests. In actual fact, various companies have popped up around the world and declared that they have developed a technological solution to monitor and filter online content, including Google’s parent company. These capabilities place social media corporations in the face of growing criticism, and they have chosen to hide behind claims of protecting freedom of expression. In my opinion, Internet giants today are already beginning to understand that they will have a hard time standing behind these claims in the long run as the damage to the individual and the security threat increase.

In order to speed up the process of taking responsibility on the part of media corporations, it must be understood – first and foremost – that they are business companies with considerations of cost and profit. As long as these companies are making huge sums of money, they have no motivation to take responsibility for the content that is published on their platforms, which include incitement material. Therefore, it is recommended to take action through legal channels to change the US law (which protects them as a technical platform only - even though they are already a communication tool with editorial considerations) and prosecute social media corporations for their part in the incitement. Ultimately, the enormous economic damage from the court fees and subsequent compensation to victims will help encourage the development of technological tools and reduce acts of incitement on the Internet. As proof of this, take the recent decisions made by the Supreme Court in Ireland and the claims that were approved in Germany, which already led Facebook to hire a company to deal with the filtering of inciting content in Germany only.

Will the removal of inciting content from social networks solve the problem of incitement to terrorism on the Internet?

Gadi Eshed: Anonymity, availability and zero risk are among the advantages of social networks. The moment that these networks are no longer available to terrorist organizations and when, for instance, they stop using off-the-shelf software and develop their own applications, it will be less challenging for security forces to locate them and to act accordingly. Today, the challenge still exists and security forces are forced to cope with an enormous amount of information that they have to filter before locating inciters on the Internet. And all this without real help from the social media corporations.

“It is difficult to find practical solutions for filtering all the problematic content and transferring the responsibility to the corporations when the entire process faces the dilemma of freedom of expression”. What do you think about the thin line between the war against incitement and claims of preserving freedom of expression? And what are the challenges in defining the term incitement?

Gadi Eshed: There is no simple answer. There is no global consensus as to the definition of terrorism and, therefore, it is difficult to achieve a broad consensus as to the definition of incitement to terrorism. It is important to emphasize that the problem does not lie in the gray area of freedom of expression, but rather in the realm of clear propaganda. Therefore, we must first solve this problem and then delve into the gray areas. We are not there yet. Even without UN agreement as to what constitutes terrorism, such claims that Islamic State publications are not incitement and propaganda are not legitimate. To stop it would not constitute an attack on freedom of expression, but rather a legitimate protection of public safety.



[1] The interview was conducted by Danielle Haberfeld, Researcher, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT)

[2] http://icsr.info/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/ICSR-Report-Criminal-Pasts-Terrorist-Futures-European-Jihadists-and-the-New-Crime-Terror-Nexus.pdf