New EU project: Tech Against Terrorism Europe

19 Apr 2023

Diana Rieger and Sophia Rothut are part of a new EU project whose aim is to get platform operators in shape for the fight against terrorist content.

The communication scientists Prof. Dr. Diana Rieger and Sophia Rothut

Sophia Rothut and Prof. Dr. Diana Rieger

work at the Institute for Communication Science and Media Research (IfKW) | © LMU

Together with their colleagues Dr. Brigitte Naderer and Heidi Schulze, Professor Diana Rieger and Sophia Rothut of the Department of Media and Communication (IfKW) at LMU Munich are taking part in a new pan-European project devoted to the fight against terrorist content on the internet.

Online platforms give extremist groups the opportunity to forge networks and spread information that is potentially dangerous. To what extent do communication experts concern themselves with terrorism on the internet?

Diana Rieger: We address this issue on a number of levels. On the one hand, we see the extent to which terrorist content is being disseminated on the internet. But we also look at the objectives of this content. Should certain infrastructures be destroyed by cyber-attacks, for example? Is the issue spreading fear or gaining attention? Or are they trying to recruit new members?

One question that repeatedly concerns communication experts, in particular, is: What is the impact on the users’ side? Do we experience more fear as a result, or do we perhaps even behave differently?

What does such extremist content look like?

Sophia Rothut: It varies greatly. It can be hateful content or propaganda against minorities or marginalized groups. But it can also go so far as to include instructions on how to build bombs, or concrete plans for attacks.

How big is the problem? Has it become more widespread in recent years?

Rieger: There has definitely been a noticeable rise in some forums. During the pandemic years, hate speech increased in certain far-right groups on Telegram. However, I have also seen analyses from the USA that study Reddit forums but have not found any uptrend.

New EU-wide regulations to fight terror on the internet have been in place since last year. What do they involve?

Rothut: They focus on placing the providers of hosting platforms under obligation and creating transparency for users. If the specific competent authorities make providers aware of terrorist content, the latter must review it within one hour and, where appropriate, delete it and notify the authors. So, the platform operators have to be able to react relatively quickly.

Essentially, this means that hosting providers have to be ready and able to check reported content on a 24/7 basis?

Rothut: Ideally, yes.

Rieger: Extremist groups are very careful in the way they plan the ideal times to place terrorist content – at night, for example, or when the shifts change at news portals’ editorial departments, meaning that content moderation is briefly interrupted.

These time slots are targeted deliberately to quickly post things that then stay online for more than a few minutes. It is a veritable race between disseminating and deleting problematic content.

Who can report such violations to the operators?

Rothut: It is mostly security authorities that review such content. In Germany, that would be the Federal Criminal Police Office, also the Federal Network Agency is also involved.

In other European countries it is similar: Mostly the security agencies are responsible, and their attention can be drawn to such content by users as well.

Why was there a need to tackle the problem at the EU level?

Rieger: One criticism was that the internet is a transnational space, and that the laws of individual countries do not have the requisite competency. So, it certainly makes sense to see the issue from a more global – or at least a European – perspective.

Within the European Union, there is perhaps also a similar basic attitude to the tension between censorship and free speech, which is interpreted slightly differently in America. In the USA, free speech is generally interpreted much more broadly than in Europe.

Who is affected by the regulations?

Rothut: They affect all providers of online services that operate in any form within the EU. That includes hosting providers that have major links to the European Union, have an office in an EU member state, focus their activities on one or more member states or have a significant number of active users in the European Union. One can therefore rather assume that a platform is affected than that this is not the case.

How easy is it for providers to implement these rules?

Rothut: Large platform operators already have quite a lot to say about terrorist and extremist content in their terms of service. They have reporting mechanisms and alert systems in place.

Smaller companies often have fewer staff and far fewer financial resources. If your capacity is limited, it becomes difficult to deal with problematic content in the appropriate manner.

That is where the project Tech Against Terrorism Europe (TATE) comes in.

What is Tech Against Terrorism Europe?

Rieger: The project’s main focus is on supporting hosting service providers. TATE seeks to educate companies, showing them what they can do if terrorist content appears on their sites and what legal implications they need to consider.

Rothut: We concentrate primarily on smaller providers. We try to give them useful tools and information. In this way, we help them to implement the new regulations and react to terrorism and extremism in the best way possible in accordance with EU legislation.

What does that look like in practice?

Rothut: We are currently producing a guide on the latest regulations governing terrorist content online. It is intended as an overview– a ready reference for companies that is handy and not overloaded with detail – that can be used to factor the threat of terrorist content into platform development from the outset.

We are also developing and testing workshops and an online course that, in just a few days, will enable platform operators to get their sites in shape against terrorism.

What part does your research play in all this?

Rieger: Besides producing this kind of material, it is extremely important for us to evaluate them properly as well. That is because many such projects run into similar problems: You do a campaign, but in the end no one knows whether it has actually achieved anything.

Do companies really know more about how to deal with terrorist content after such a course or workshop? Do they know where to start and where they can get help? These are the questions we want to investigate and assess in the course of the project.

The project Tech Against Terrorism Europe (TATE) helps small tech companies meet the requirements to fight against the dissemination of terrorist content on their platforms. Seven partners from six countries are committed to the project. Alongside Professor Diana Rieger, LMU involvement in the project application included Dr. Brigitte Naderer (now at the Medical University of Vienna) and Heidi Schulze.

The communication scientists Prof. Dr. Diana Rieger and Sophia Rothut

Sophia Rothut and Prof. Dr. Diana Rieger are part of the LMU team involved in the Tech Against Terrorism Europe project. | © LMU

Prof. Dr. Diana Rieger is Deputy Director of the Department of Media and Communication and Vice Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at LMU. She conducts research into online radicalization, hate speech, appropriate countermeasures and the impact of entertainment offerings.

Sophia Rothut is a research associate and doctoral candidate at LMU’s Department of Media and Communication. She concerns herself primarily with the issues of online radicalization, the mainstreaming of radical positions and influencers on the far right.

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