How Terrorists Slip Beheading Videos Past YouTube’s Censors
Other jihadi propaganda on the video-sharing platform may be visually more low-key, but are just as insidious in their own ways.
There is a grim bit in comedian Dave Chappelle's new Netflix special about clicking "don't like" on an Islamic State beheading video.
"How is this guy cutting peoples' heads off on YouTube?" Chappelle asks, noting the absurdity of it.
Don't like. Click.
In reality, reports of extremist content littering YouTube aren't new. But when hundreds of major advertisers began suspending contracts with YouTube and Google in recent months, boycotting the massive video-sharing platform over concerns with such explicit content, things got a lot more real.
Google services—namely YouTube—are the most plentiful and important links used by terrorist organizations to disseminate their propaganda. And despite all of YouTube's efforts to keep them out thus far, such groups still manage to sneak their media onto its servers.
The Current State of YouTube
The amount of YouTube and other Google links created to push terrorist content is hard to overstate. Take one IS recruitment video, "And You Will be Superior," one of many released amid the snowballing boycott. The 35-minute video, released on March 18, urges people of all ages to join IS by featuring suicide bombers from different walks of life—a doctor, a disabled fighter, and a young child—describing their lives before footage of their respective suicide operations.
When IS releases a video like this, an array of pro-IS media groups—translators, promoters, social media leaders, link-creators—immediately get to work in pushing it out across the internet. One very important, but not widely known media group, The Upload Knights (or Fursan al-Rafa in Arabic), plays a major role in the dissemination of these releases by creating hundreds of links to them across various streaming and file-sharing sites on a daily basis.
The importance of YouTube to The Upload Knights and other terrorist media groups is clear as day. During a two-day span following the release of "And You Will be Superior," The Upload Knights distributed the video and its promotional banner with 136 unique links from Google services alone: 69 for YouTube, 54 for Google Drive, and 13 for Google Photos.
Keep in mind, that was just one video, and just one media group. In the 10 days between March 8 and 18—the time span leading to the aforementioned video's release—The Upload Knights channel posted 515 links to Google services: 328 for YouTube, 148 for Google Drive, and 39 for Google Photos.
YouTube is equally important for al Qaeda (AQ) and its affiliates. Note the way in which al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's (AQAP) primary media channel prioritizes YouTube above all other forms of video dissemination. Releasing a May 3 video on clashes with Security Belt Forces in Yemen, the channel forwarded the video via three links: two of which to compilations of over 130 links on two pasting services, and one being a YouTube link.
Other jihadi videos on YouTube may be visually more low-key, but are just as insidious in their own ways. YouTube contains a library for speeches by extremist clerics like Anwar al-Awlaki, a deceased American citizen whom many terrorists have praised as a formative influence in their radicalization. As a teenage female IS recruit from Colorado once answered in an online Q&A platform, when asked what she does when she can't sleep at night: "Watch lectures on youtube and stay on twitter."
And it's not just jihadist content plaguing YouTube's servers. Violently racist and bigoted videos like those featuring "Moonman," a white supremacist meme originated from old McDonald's advertising, show Jews and other minorities being shot while exclaiming "death camps for blacks" and "fascism's back." (To see just how easy they are to find, enter the word "Moonman" into YouTube's search bar.)
Simply put, advertisers' concerns are not unfounded.
Terrorists' Methods of Exploiting YouTube
It would be unfair to say YouTube hasn't done anything to stop terrorist media from reaching its servers. Per YouTube's policy on terrorist-related content:
YouTube strictly prohibits content intended to recruit for terrorist organizations, incite violence, celebrate terrorist attacks or otherwise promote acts of terrorism. We also do not permit foreign terrorist organizations to use YouTube. Content intended to document events connected to terrorist acts or news reporting on terrorist activities may be allowed on the site with sufficient context and intent. However, graphic or controversial footage may be subject to age-restrictions or a warning screen.
To this point, YouTube has made it easy for users to flag policy-violating content and worked toward implementing automated solutions for detecting terrorist content. However, as I've stated before, terrorist propaganda comprises a lot more than the gory execution videos which detection technologies may seek to find. And, just as troublingly, terrorist groups have repeatedly found ways to bypass unwanted attention from non-supporting users and administrators.
For instance, in order to prevent users from flagging explicit or inflammatory extremist videos, terrorist media groups and disseminators like The Upload Knights and AQ's As-Sahab Media Foundation often label YouTube videos as "unlisted," meaning that the videos cannot be searched—only accessed if you are given the link. This feature works well to keep a video somewhat contained to supporters and prospects. They are also just as easy as any other link to find on the messaging service Telegram, though, after which they can be further disseminated on social media.
Terrorist groups also upload videos that are not the actual videos they are advertised to be. Instead, audio plays over a still image with a message at the bottom directing users to alternative links provided in the description section. Take an April 26 video from IS' Ninawa Province for example:
In the comments section of this YouTube upload, which was eventually removed, were several more links, making the YouTube page look a lot like a password-protected jihadi forum or private Telegram chat group:
Toward Better Solutions
Terrorist groups are brand-focused by their very nature. Thus, releases by these organizations consistently bare recurring elements, including hashtags, phrases, and watermarks. For instance, videos by IS' 'Amaq News Agency consistently open with the same animation, as shown in the following screenshots taken from YouTube:
Media by AQ and its affiliates likewise contain the same types of watermarks. For example, the following screenshots show recurring opening and closings of videos by AQAP:
YouTube already uses precisely the type of technology that could recognize much of these elements on its servers as such. So, if the company can recognize copyright-infringing material and other policy-violating content, then why can't it do so for propaganda from a group like IS or AQ?
Also noteworthy is that when YouTube removes a video from a terrorist media group like The Upload Knights, it doesn't always remove the channel that posted it, allowing the group and others like it to upload future videos more easily.
Take an April 5 IS video from IS' Furat Province as an example. The following combined screenshots show the video's stats as it stood on YouTube with over 220 views prior to being taken down, and a thumbnail taken from Telegram, whereon it was widely disseminated.
Despite being taken down, the YouTube channel that posted it is still active as of May 22, as shown in the following screenshot.
Taking down these channels might at least offer somewhat more deterrence to terrorist groups. But by leaving them up, YouTube is already giving them a half-way head-start to upload the next terrorist release. In the wake of Monday's attack at Manchester Arena, for example, the Upload Knights Telegram channel began rapidly posting previously released IS videos threatening the West. Each video was posted with only five links, the first of which being to YouTube and Google Drive.
There are plenty of such channels to go around on the platform. A search for The Upload Knights in Arabic shows an array of channels, complete with the Upload Knights name and logo:
A lot of terrorist media groups also use uploading scripts like Rapidleech, which enable them to simultaneously upload content to multiple services, including YouTube, and easily repeat the process for each new piece of content. Anything seeming to be uploaded with such devices should at least be a red flag to those monitoring the platform for content deemed offensive, including extremist propaganda.
Extremist groups' ongoing embrace of YouTube, and their investment in new ways to stay on it, signals a clear and troubling message: terrorists still feel like they have a grasp on the platform. Responding to advertisers concerns in March, Ronan Harris, Managing Director of Google UK, stated that the company knows it "must do more," while promising to "provide simpler, more robust ways to stop [advertisers'] ads from showing against controversial content."
YouTube's issue with terrorist content is not just one of advertising revenue; it is one of safety. That said, we should all wish the video-sharing company and all other stake-holding information and communication technology platforms the best in countering extremist content on their servers, and hope to see these companies embrace new, adaptive solutions and partnerships in doing so. Maybe then would a joke about the absurdity of clicking "don't like" when confronted with a video of a terrorist "cutting peoples' heads off on YouTube" gradually lose relevancy.
For now, Chappelle's bit is as potent as ever. As is often said about comedy, there's a dark, unsettling humor in it because it's true.
Rita Katz, executive director of the SITE Intelligence Group, has infiltrated terrorist fronts undercover, testified before Congress and in terrorism trials, and personally briefed officials at the White House, as well as investigators in the Departments of Justice, Treasury, and Homeland Security. Her investigations and testimony have driven action by the US government against terror-linked organizations and individuals.
Ms. Katz is the author of TERRORIST HUNTER: The Extraordinary Story of a Woman who Went Undercover to Infiltrate the Radical Islamic Groups Operating in America.