Islamic State Moving to Digital Lockers to Spread Propaganda

(Bloomberg) -- Islamic State is increasingly turning to file-hosting websites to spread propaganda in response to social-media crackdowns by Twitter Inc., Facebook Inc., and Alphabet Inc.’s Google.

New York-based threat-analysis firm Flashpoint published research Tuesday showing the militant group has instead been more frequently utilizing preserved versions of web pages on sites such as the Internet Archive, file-storage platforms Google Drive and Dropbox Inc., French YouTube competitor Dailymotion.com, and a variety of lesser-known online locker services.

"They have had a lot more difficulty maintaining accounts on Twitter and distributing propaganda over it," Ken Wolf, a senior intelligence analyst at Flashpoint, said in an interview, but added that "it’s very easy for these groups to migrate from one platform to the next."

Politicians have pressured social media companies -- in particular Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube -- to do more to keep extremist content off their platforms. The companies have hired thousands of people to manually review uploads, and have also adopted machine-learning systems to detect terrorist propaganda before it’s seen by anybody.

Flashpoint analyzed links posted to Islamic State’s official, password-protected web forum and another private site closely associated with the terrorist organization, between January 2015 and December 2017, and found that Twitter had fallen out of the top 10 sites referenced in the two Islamic State forums between those dates.

But Wolf said the group seems to be deliberately requesting that certain pages be cached on the Internet Archive in order to maintain access to the material even if it’s removed by the site where it was initially posted. Archive.org was the site most frequently linked to by Islamic State forums in 2017.

Chris Butler, a spokesman for the Internet Archive, said that as soon as it’s informed about the presence of extremist content, particularly Islamic State propaganda, it either removes it or places it behind restricted barriers that only journalists or academic researchers can access. Butler said the organization has “regular productive meetings” with U.S. and European governments about Islamic State content and how to deal with it.

Google Drive remained a popular alternative, but Flashpoint’s research showed the militant group was also using a wide array of smaller services to spread its message. Among the top ten sites were 4shared.com, userscloud.com and sendvid.com.

Wolf said this showed why it was important for groups such as the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism -- a consortium founded by Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube to share information that helps the platforms identify extremist material -- to partner with many more less popular or niche services.

He said that despite efforts to clamp down on Islamic State’s online propaganda, the volume of content it shared, and the places the group posted it, has changed remarkably little over the three years Flashpoint examined.

"We do need be thinking about broader efforts to get at the root of the problem and not just crack down on the big name social networks," Wold said.

Flashpoint has previously received funding from Bloomberg Beta, the venture capital arm of Bloomberg LP.

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