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The importance of human-driven analysis in the fight against domestic extremism

Irene Kenyon  Director of Risk Intelligence / FiveBy

· 5 minute read

Irene Kenyon  Director of Risk Intelligence / FiveBy

· 5 minute read

At the recent Thomson Reuters panel on US security issues, it was made clear that to win the fight against domestic violent extremists, data and technology are key

WASHINGTON, D.C. — This September marked the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on our nation. How has the terrorism landscape evolved in these two decades? What mitigation strategies have and should continue to be developed to protect our nation from violent extremist attacks — whether from domestic extremist groups or foreign terrorist organizations.

At the recent Thomson Reuters Institute event titled “Those Darkest Hours”: The Future of American Security, many of these key issues were discussed, including:

      • The differences between individuals connected with foreign terrorist organizations and domestic violent extremists.
      • The role of professional money launderers and trusted networks in funding domestic terrorism, how domestic extremist financial transactions differ from those of foreign terrorist organizations, and how financial institutions and law enforcement can best follow the money.
      • How social media and other tech platforms play a role in recruitment, radicalization, and retention of domestic violent extremists.
      • Identifying key allies for curtailing fringe behavior and mitigating its risks.
      • The role Corporate America plays in identifying extremist behavior and helping to mitigate it.

In the fight against domestic violent extremists, data and technology are key. However, you need more than data — you need the human experience as well. Analysts are experts in providing answers to many of these questions and performing in-depth, due diligence research on clients’ business partners and customers to ensure that they do not have ties to terrorism — whether domestic or foreign — and that they are in compliance with US sanctions and other laws.

This work helps clients mitigate reputational risks by providing background and history, identifying any known links to extremist organizations and possible connections to questionable groups, conducting research on leadership and corporate ownership and control structures, as well as offering glances around the corner — strategic looks — at upcoming designations, regulations, and restrictions.

These assessments are more important than ever today as the world relies ever more heavily on artificial intelligence and machine learning to perform not only compliance and due diligence tasks, but content moderation. Human-driven analysis — assessing tone, language, colloquialisms, and possible intent — is critical to challenge the individual perceptions of persecution and marginalization that may set many individuals on a path to violence.

Social media monitoring & analysis

Domestic violent extremists tend to meet and recruit in Internet chat forums and social media platforms. These people — who often feel disenchanted with the current national climate and disenfranchised, isolated, and targeted by Big Tech — find one another online, fostering feelings of camaraderie among individuals with similar views. They are embraced as family, because of their extremist views, which is often a dynamic they lack in their real life.

Individuals who hold extremist views may never embark on the path to violence, but censoring their ideas, regardless of how extreme they may sound, only reinforces their perception that they are being targeted and oppressed. Challenging those notions requires a human touch.

The White House’s National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, published in mid-2021, says that people should not be targeted based on their political views. However, then the challenge lies in how to determine whether unsavory talk is on its way to becoming a violent act. It is critical that we condemn and confront domestic terrorism regardless of the particular ideology that motivates individuals to violence. The definition of “domestic terrorism” in our law makes no distinction based on political views — left, right, or center — and neither should we.

Just as messaging needs to be cautiously crafted to ensure it does not punish ideas and label them as “domestic terrorism,” so too should content moderation be carefully performed to ensure that those individuals who already feel marginalized are not pushed into further isolation. Censorship will confirm their biases and perceptions of suppression, and AI — while a useful tool — cannot glean satire, understand cultural norms and references, comprehend colloquialisms, or assess language nuance.

Human-driven analysis can.

Making sense out of reams of data

Expert analysts can help assess content to ensure that legitimate views — no matter how much they seem out of the mainstream — are not censored based on words detected by an algorithm. They can examine content, its source, tone, and subtleties. They are regional experts who understand context and culture and can help tech platforms determine whether posted content is simply satire or bluster or may possibly be more than that. They can help platforms ensure that they are not contributing to the further marginalization of individuals who may simply need a way to return to their community, instead of confirming their perception that the entire world is seeking to silence them.

Members of NGOs such as the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), that facilitates information-sharing and technical collaboration between platforms, will also find human-driven analysis critical when examining hashes — digital signatures for images or videos that allow members to identify visually similar content — or other shared information. GIFCT members review content identified by the hashes and share their assessments with other members of the organization, facilitating dialogue between tech platforms and collaboration to ensure that terrorist content is removed from platforms, while working to preserve freedom of expression online.

On a more basic level, human-driven analysis can help make sense of the reams of data generated by tech tools. Whether it’s conflicting sanctions information, multiple adverse media articles, or contradictory ownership and control information, analysts can help make sense of the data, find the So what? and help companies avoid reputational, regulatory, and environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) risk.

Further, human-driven linguistic analysis can identify name variations in multiple languages and transliterations, regional experts can help detect jurisdictional risk, and policy specialists can help companies and financial institutions be proactive in ensuring they stay ahead of the game when regulations change and new policies are implemented.

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