UK losing online extremism battle, research suggests

By Frank Gardner
BBC security correspondent

image copyrightPA

Britain and other western countries are losing the battle against extremism online, research has suggested.

Extremist content on search engines is becoming ever more dominant, the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics and firm Digitalis has found.

The government's counter-radicalisation efforts appeared in only 5% of the content analysed, so high-risk keywords were going unchallenged, it found.

The government said it had taken down 250,000 pieces of material since 2010.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd said she wanted to tackle the issue "head-on".

'Much deeper problem'

It starts with the bait: superficially bland, non-violent content that comes up when someone searches online for topics like "kafir" or unbeliever.

But, according to the research, the search results often include calls for the downfall of democratic systems or the introduction of a caliphate - a state governed in accordance with Islamic law, or Sharia, by God's deputy on Earth, or caliph.

The reader is quickly led on to more extremist content, including calls to kill non-Muslims.

Research conducted in May 2016 found that each month there were, on average, nearly half a million Google searches globally and at least 54,000 searches in the UK alone, for keywords that returned results dominated by extremist material.

Since then the problem has only got worse.

The conclusion: people are not being radicalised just on social media, as was previously thought, but during their online searches before they even go on social media.

image copyrightReuters
image captionHome Secretary Amber Rudd said she wanted to tackle the issue "head-on"

Extremism expert Eman El-Badawy told the BBC: "People always knew when they were looking at a jihadist video where it came from, as it was clearly branded.

"But this is a much deeper problem.

"It's extremist content popping up as a resource, almost like a Wikipedia entry, that people refer to."

The government has acknowledged the extent of the problem.

The Home Office, Foreign Office and Metropolitan Police have all been working hard to tackle extremist content.

A unit known as the Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit, a joint venture between the police and the Home Office, is taking down an average of 2,000 pieces of extremist content every week, with a total of more than 250,000 examples of extremism removed from the web since 2010.

Ms Rudd said online terrorist propaganda posed a "very real and evolving threat".

On Thursday, she welcomed the commitment from communication service providers, which include mobile phone and broadband companies, to set up a cross-industry forum.

"I said I wanted to see this tackled head-on and I welcome the commitment from the key players to set up a cross-industry forum that will help to do this," she said.

"In taking forward this work, I'd like to see the industry go further and faster in not only removing online terrorist content, but stopping it going up in the first place.

"I'd also like to see more support for smaller and emerging platforms to do this as well, so they can no longer be seen as an alternative shop floor by those who want to do us harm."

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