YouTube is Right to Take Down Violent Content

November 16, 2017

Photo by Rego KorosiĀ (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Photo by Rego KorosiĀ (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Although the U.S. government killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the most influential English-speaking extremist Muslim cleric over six years ago, more than 70,000 of his videos continued to be available on YouTube -- serving as a powerful tool for recruiting violent extremists.  

Offensive speech, violent speech, and the First Amendment

After being pressured by government officials and advocates, YouTube removed Awlaki’s videos promoting violence and adopted a policy whereby videos featuring him are flagged automatically and staff will manually ensure that the content does not contain or promote violence. However, his non-violent videos, such as his lectures on Islam, are still available online and comprise twenty-five percent of all of his videos.

Although YouTube does not have to adhere to the First Amendment the same way as the government, this new framework respects free speech even though many of Awlaki’s ideas on Islam are extreme and offensive. YouTube struck the appropriate balance in this case, and this balance is crucial in regulating online content and speech.

Offensive content is available over the internet -- whether it is extremist propaganda created by Muslims or non-Muslims resorting to Islamophobic speech. Tech companies should remove violent content from their platforms. But, they should not suppress offensive speech. Instead, they should promote positive content that community organizations produce.  

Tech companies must be considered partners

For years, civil society leaders and organizations have been creating positive content on their own by putting forth their own stories and experiences, like MPAC co-founder Dr. Maher Hathout's “Islam: Questions You Were Afraid to Ask” series and “The Secret Life of Muslims.” Online platforms -- tech companies -- have the power to reach millions of people and bring positive content to the surface for their users to see. They must work to ensure that positive content reach other Americans because these types of stories bring us closer together and foster an environment of inclusivity.

YouTube’s recent decision is a reminder that civil society has a role in elevating narratives, such as prevalent, mainstream nonviolent interpretations of Islam, to counter extremist propaganda and seek content that is inclusive rather than divisive. Through this method, tech companies can demonstrate to its users that content like Awlaki’s propaganda is toxic and unsupported by the overwhelming majority of Muslims. 

There are additional ways to combat violent speech

Awlaki uploaded tens of thousands of videos preaching violent extremism, and was cited as an influence in other violent extremist attacks. He inspired many violent extremists to fight for groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda.

Awlaki’s popularity on social media demonstrates that violent extremism involves an ideological battle -- a war of ideas. He died, but his violent propaganda did not. There is no military solution against violent extremism. The fight against violent extremism is primarily an ideological battle -- not a military battle. We cannot afford to make our military strategy the only strategy.

The fight against violent extremism requires civil society’s involvement. Tech companies can respect First Amendment rights without suppressing offensive content by removing violent content and not suppressing offensive content. These companies must make mainstream narratives available to their users in order to create a more inclusive, pluralistic society.

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