A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism

Braniff speaks at Global Research Network on Terrorism and Technology conference

“For the last panel of the day, it feels appropriate to be provocative,” START Director William Braniff said. “I think we should have realistic expectations of diminishing returns in countering terrorism in the online space, despite the tremendous strides that have been made over the last three years in this field.”

Braniff was appearing on a panel at the inaugural conference of the Global Research Network on Terrorism and Technology (GRNTT), which was held at the Brookings Institution last month.

The GRNTT is a consortium dedicated to exploring the intersection of terrorism and technology, and is supported by the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), a joint enterprise by Facebook, Twitter, Google and Microsoft to counter terrorism in the online space.

The panel, moderated by Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Senior Director Andrew Glazzard, considered the future directions of policy concerning terrorism and technology.

“We can apply the gun-armor race to take downs of online extremist content,” Braniff said. “It’s reactionary and much more expensive to build better armor than a better gun. That asymmetry can only grow over time, meaning that greater tech investment will yield lesser gains in security after the low-hanging fruit has been handled. Extremists or online insurgents are fighting a total war, while tech companies are fighting a partial war.”

Braniff pointed to the findings of START’s own research on online extremists to further explore his argument.

“In the United States between 2005-2017, 87 percent of the active users of social media in our PIRUS dataset failed to complete a successful attack, compared with a 47 percent failure rate for those who were not using social media,” Braniff said. “The use of social media is a massively stupid thing to do in terms of operational security. Will we look back on this period of massive exploitation of open social media tools by extremists as a golden age for counterterrorism, and wish we didn’t drive movements to the darker corners of the online world?”

The concern about whether or not social media sites should engage in taking down extremist content is multifaceted, Braniff explained.

“In the aftermath of recent violent far right attacks, there has been palpable excitement about the possibility of getting kicked off 8chan, because it might finally push the movement out of the recesses of the internet and onto the street,” Braniff said. “It suggests the possibility that closed online communities may be a useful release valve that we should preserve, not attack.”

In the question and answer portion of the panel, Glazzard asked the panelists about what use extremists will make of communications technologies in the future, and Braniff pointed to the potential use of geotagging technologies.

“Think about the Islamic State’s tendency to crowd source information online about potential targets,” Braniff said. “An individual in Ohio got 20 years in federal prison for retweeting a hit list of U.S. service members and their addresses, that the Islamic State’s online hacking folks produced. We also know that they produce apps, so they’re designing their own platforms. How long before we have terrorist-produced platforms that allow for the crowdsourcing of target packages with geolocation?”

Braniff’s fellow panelists, Georgia State University Professor Mia Bloom and Soufan Center Senior Research Fellow Colin Clarke, were quick to agree with him.

“Bill’s absolutely right,” Bloom said. “We have to be aware that they are trying to be what we call malevolently creative. They are trying to get new ideas and new targets, but also ways of making it, in many ways, more addictive for their audience.”

Clarke also echoed Braniff after Glazzard asked the panelists about what ideologies they foresaw arising in the future.

“Globally, I think environmental extremism, because the greatest threat and the most widespread grievance that’s going to affect the largest number of already aggrieved populations will involve climate issues,” Braniff said.

Clarke agreed with him. “Look at what’s happening in Europe, where kids are staging walkouts in high schools because they think their governments aren’t doing enough to address climate change,” Clarke said. “If they feel that violence or destroying property is necessary strictly to call attention to the issue because enough isn’t happening, and they perceive it to be an existential threat, then that’s what we’ll see in the future.”

At the end of the panel, after taking questions from the audience, Braniff noted what American people and companies need to do in order to effectively counter extremism, both online and in the real world.

“In crowded marketplaces like the 24-hour news media or social media environment, there’s this tendency to move towards highly variegated goods, where you’ve got one news channel that caters to its audience, and another news channel that caters to its audience. Instead of having the town commons, or the place for diversity of opinion, you’ve got lots of places with very narrow sets of opinions constantly being reinforced,” Braniff said.

“The challenge is that in the news media, the business model is to sell anger. People talk about selling fear, but I think it’s actually anger that gets people coming back—and that’s really dangerous for social cohesion. We have to figure out a way to celebrate the middle, celebrate diversity, to not condemn compromise as a sin in our political discourse, so that we don’t fall victim to polarization.”