UK touts way to block ISIS propaganda from appearing online

The U.K. government is harnessing machine learning to combat jihadist content before it even appears online.

Officials from the U.K. Government’s Home Office have been working with London-based ASI Data Science to develop the technology, which uses machine learning to detect online terrorist propaganda. Tests have shown that the new tool can automatically detect 94 percent of Islamic State propaganda with 99.995 percent accuracy, according to a Home Office statement. Crucially, the tool can be integrated into the upload process, officials say, a bold move that could prevent terrorist propaganda reaching the internet.

The tool, which works on any platform, uses advanced machine learning to study video audio and visuals to spot ISIS propaganda. Trained using over 1,000 ISIS videos, the tool can work across a range of video-streaming and download sites, the Home Office said.


“The purpose of these videos is to incite violence in our communities, recruit people to their cause, and attempt to spread fear in our society,” explained Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who is currently visiting Silicon Valley, in the statement. “We know that automatic technology like this can heavily disrupt the terrorists’ actions, as well as prevent people from ever being exposed to these horrific images.”

Rudd will be appearing with her U.S. counterpart, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, at a Digital Forum event Tuesday.

While Silicon Valley heavyweights such as Facebook and Google, which owns YouTube, have ramped up their tech efforts to tackle terrorist content, the U.K. says that smaller platforms are increasingly being targeted by ISIS and would particularly benefit from the blocking tool. In particular, ISIS has been using Instagram, owned by Facebook to share its propaganda and recruit new members.


Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence in London, warned that combatting ISIS online propaganda is an extremely difficult task.

“The software will not come remotely close to eradicating all #IS propaganda online, even if it works perfectly—it will just make it more difficult to access on the platforms that opt to use it,” he tweeted Tuesday.

Nonetheless, Winter thinks that the new tool is a step in the right direction. “If the software is as good as the Home Office says it is, certain aspects of #IS’s propaganda could well become much less accessible to the outside world—and that can only be a good thing,” he tweeted.

The U.K. has been heavily involved in international efforts to clamp down on ISIS content. Last year, the British government spearheaded the formation of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, which emerged in the aftermath of the Westminster Bridge terrorist attack.


“This government has been taking the lead worldwide in making sure that vile terrorist content is stamped out,” explained Rudd, in the statement. The Home Secretary will meet with the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism during her Silicon Valley trip.

Recent research conducted by the Home Office indicates that supporters of ISIS, also known as Daesh, used more than 400 different platforms to push their propaganda in 2017. “Previous research has found the majority of links to Daesh propaganda are disseminated within 2 hours of release, while a third of all links are disseminated within the first hour,” explained the Home Office, in its statement.

Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers