Free to be extreme

This report from the UK think tank The Henry Jackson Society takes a look at Islamist and far-right online extremism.

Contrary to growing assumptions that far-right extremists pose the greatest threat online, Free To Be Extreme highlights how Islamists are committing more serious offences in the online space. The report ranks those convicted between 2015 and 2019 of online-based extremism offences, comprised of terrorism offences and hate-based offences with an online element, into six bands, according to 20 indicators of the seriousness of harm they cause. The classification system’s metrics include audience size, lack of remorse, prejudice towards minority groups, and glorification of violence – none of the classification metrics are unique to any one ideology. The classification system comes in a report, commissioned by Facebook, to develop new ways of identifying those who abuse social media platforms to spread extremism and hate of all ideologies.

The six band risk categorisation system is designed to help social media firms target their responses to the most dangerous and harmful offenders. According to the classification system, 34.4% of far-right offenders were in the highest three risk bands. In contrast, 52% of Islamists convicted of offences were in these higher bands. Yet Islamist offenders convicted of online extremist offences received prison sentences of, on average, three times as long as their far right counterparts. However, the report’s author today warns that one factor in this sentence disparity is a failure by the Home Office to proscribe far-right groups, making them harder to prosecute than their Islamist equivalents. The report also finds Islamist extremists were more likely commit offences on encrypted platforms, where they would be harder to monitor, than their far-right counterparts.

As such, the report proposes a series of recommendations to tackle online extremism, including: proscribing additional far-right organisations allowing terrorist offences to be used against offenders; a new independent regulator on online harms to assist technology companies keep track of the most harmful offenders; profiles in the higher level of the harm grading system should be handled by a new research department funded by social media companies, and information on these profiles within popular and ‘alt-tech’ platforms should be shared between companies; and that social media companies should ensure that free speech is protected, particularly for those who criticise extremist content and religion, or use satire, irony, or art to do so.

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