From Execution Videos to Cats of Mujahdeen: How do Social Media Companies Regulate Terrorist Content?

AuthorMacKenzie F. Common
PositionFourth year PhD student in Law at the London School of Economics (LSE)
Pages96-99
(2020) 19 COLR 96
96
FROM EXECUTION VIDEOS TO CATS OF MUJAHDEEN: HOW DO SOCIAL
MEDIA COMPANIES REGULATE TERRORIST CONTENT?
MacKenzie F Common*
Dear Editor,
Until 2014, most discussions about social media focussed on its positive effects for democracy
and human rights. This was exemplified by the Arab Spring, where Peter Beaumont, a
journalist for The Guardian, opined that ‘[t]he barricades today do not bristle with bayonets
and rifles, but with phones.’
1
Then, in August 2014, the popular narrative changed when the
upstart terrorist group ISIS posted a video of journalist James Foley being beheaded on social
media.
2
The group continued to use social media for publicity, recruitment, and intimidation,
prompting a global reappraisal of the merits of social media and its lack of regulation.
Now, politicians and users alike demand that social media platforms identify and remove
terrorist content as quickly as possible. Theresa May, for example, stated in a speech at the
United Nations General Assembly that tech companies must go ‘further and faster’ in removing
terrorist content.
3
In our collective rush to respond to this new threat, however, we have failed
to ask important questions about how terrorist content is regulated on social media. This
ignorance has resulted in a reliance on private-sector censorship without any of the safeguards
that are available in a public institution.
* MacKenzie F Common is a fourth year PhD student in Law at the London School of Economics (LSE). Common
has an LLM in International Law from the University of Cambridge, where she completed a thesis on the
challenges of regulating hate speech on social media. She also holds an LLB (Graduate Entry) from City
University of London and an Honours BA in Political Science from the University of Guelph (Canada). Her
research focuses on the content moderation processes at social media companies and argues that man y of their
practices are problematic from a human rights law and rule of law standpoint. Her work on social media recently
won the Google Prize at the Bileta (the British and Irish Law Education and Technology Association) conference.
1
Peter Beaumont, ‘The Truth about Twitter, Facebook, and the Uprisings in the Arab World’ The Guardian
(London, 25 February 2011) http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/feb/25/twitter-facebook-uprisings-arab-
libya> accessed 21 February 2020.
2
CNN Editorial Research, ‘ISIS Fast Facts by CNN Library’ CNN (21 January 2019).
https://edition.cnn.com/2014/08/08/world/isis-fast-facts/index.html. Accessed 21 February 2020> accessed 26
March 2020.
3
Heather Stewart and Jessica Elgot, ‘May Calls on Social Media Giants to do More to Tackle Terrorism’ The
Guardian (24 January 2018) https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/jan/24/theresa-may-calls-on-social-
media-giants-to-do-more-to- tackle-terrorism> accessed 21 February 2020.

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