January 18, 2020
Study shows disparity in sentencing for similar online offences
Armed police on London’s streets in response to high security terrorist alerts. Photograph: Alamy
By Mark Townsend | The Guardian
Islamist offenders convicted of online extremist crimes received prison sentences three times longer than those of their far-right counterparts, according to new analysis.
Researchers found that Islamists received on average 73.4 months compared with 24.5 months for far-right offenders, despite the government’s ambition to treat both strains of extremism in the same way.
The study by the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), a foreign policy thinktank, said a primary reason for the disparity was a failure by the Home Office to proscribe far-right groups, making them harder to prosecute than their Islamist equivalents.
Although National Action became the first and only far-right group to be banned as a terrorist organisation in 2016, other organisations such as the neo-Nazi System Resistance Network, which advocates zero tolerance of non-white people, and of Jews and Muslims, has yet to be outlawed.
By contrast, it is illegal for a British citizen to be a member of at least eight Islamist organisatations, including Sunni militia group Ansar al-Sharia and the Islamic State.
“The lack of far-right groups subject to proscription in the UK, when compared to Islamist groups, has left the authorities reliant on hate-crime legislation rather than specific terrorist offences which carry heftier sentences,” said the report’s author Nikita Malik. She added: “The government needs to keep this situation under review in a fast-moving online world, where offending causes real and significant harm.”
Malik examined 107 cases in which an individual was convicted of an “extremist-related” offence committed on social media from 2015-2019. Almost a third of the offenders used Facebook to disseminate their views, with 14.7% using Twitter, followed by the encrypted messaging services WhatsApp (14%) and Telegram (9%). A quarter of offenders had ignored warnings from technology companies, friends, family, or the police, and continued posting extremist context. Nearly two-thirds were aged 30 or younger, while a fifth had a history of criminal behaviour.
Of the 107 cases, almost 90% entailed attempts to glorify or justify violence, while two-thirds incited violence directly.
The majority of hate material identified, almost three-quarters, was Islamist, with much of it linked to Islamic State. Of the cases, 12% involved individuals who belonged to no identifiable group but who spread anti-Muslim hate. Another 10% promoted antisemitic or Nazi-related material. Islamists were more likely to commit offences on encrypted platforms, making them harder to monitor than their far-right counterparts. “They do so with intent and to a large audience,” said Malik.
The research, released in parliament next week, was commissioned by Facebook as it works on identifying individuals who spread extremism.
The world’s largest social network, with more than two billion users, has been under severe pressure to curb the rapid global spread of hate messages, pictures and videos through its site and apps that it owns, such as WhatsApp.
Last March, Facebook was used to disseminate the live video of the murders of 51 people in Christchurch, New Zealand.
The HJS report also ranked those convicted of online-based extremism into six bands, using 20 indicators of risk level, including social media audience-size, lack of remorse, prejudice towards minority groups and glorification of violence.
According to the classification system, more than half of Islamists convicted of offences were in the highest three risk bands, demonstrating the most serious risk, compared to a third of far-right offenders.
The six-band risk categorisation system is designed to help social media firms target their action at offenders while avoiding a “ban or no-ban” approach, which critics argue is too crude.
Jeremy Wright, the former culture secretary who co-authored last year’s “online harms” White Paper, said: “A consistent, cross-platform framework of ‘online extremist harm’ as put forward in this report can be used to assess and flag patterns of behaviour, focusing on both violent and non-violent [harmful] extremism.
“Technology companies can consider tailored approaches based on similarities of those individuals falling within specific harm categories. Of course, there is space for such a framework to evolve with time and in response to certain offline events, such as terrorist attacks.”
Malik endorsed a new independent regulator on online extremism to help technology companies monitor the most harmful offenders.
Wright added: “This would assist with ensuring that a framework is implemented consistently across platforms, including lesser-known ‘alt-tech’ platforms where content and banned individuals and groups may migrate.”