Attempts to block extremist material online will always fail despite a British counter-terrorism unit taking down more than 100 web pages a day, a think tank has warned.
The terrorist material reappears on the Internet as quickly as it is banished and the policy risks driving fanatics on to the “dark web” where they are even harder to track, according to the Quilliam Foundation.
It warned that censorship and filtering tactics are ineffective and that openly challenging the material is likely to have a greater impact.
The report said despite concerns over fanatics radicalising themselves online, most vulnerable people are still targeted offline first and the Internet is only a “secondary socialiser”.
Greater efforts are needed to combat radicalisation in schools, universities and prisons, it concluded.
Figures show the Government’s Counter-Terrorism Internet Referral Unit has removed 65,000 items rom the Internet that “encouraged or glorified acts of terrorism”, including 46,000 since December last year.
Some 70 per cent of that content related to Isil, Syria and Iraq.
Separate figures suggest terrorists involved in at least seven of the ten major plots foiled in the UK since 2010 had access to Inspire — the banned online terror magazine published by al-Qaeda.
But the Quilliam report, which examined the effectiveness of the Government’s counter-radicalisation Prevent programme, found efforts to tackle online fanatics are unlikely to succeed.
“Negative measures, including Government-backed censorship and filtering initiatives, are ineffective in tackling online extremism, tackling the symptoms rather than the causes of radicalisation,” it said.
“Motivated extremists and terrorist affiliates can evade such measures easily through the dark net and virtual private networks.
“Blocked materials consistently reappear online and there is no effective way for ISPs (Internet service providers) or social media companies to filter extremist content.”
It comes amid a growing row over the responsibilities of Internet companies to help curb extremism online and those who exploit their platforms to radicalise and spread hatred.
In November, Robert Hannigan, the new director of GCHQ, warned that some Internet services had become “the command and control networks of choice” for terrorists and criminals but that the companies were “in denial”.
Later that month, Facebook came under attack after a report in to the murder of soldier Lee Rigby by Islamist fanatics.
It emerged the company failed to pass on information that could have prevented the murder after one of the killers, Michael Adebowale, used the social networking site to express his “intent to murder a soldier in the most graphic and emotive manner” five months before the 2013 Woolwich attack.
The report found that Facebook had not been aware of that specific exchange.
However, Parliament’s intelligence and security committee discovered that Facebook had previously shut down Adebowale’s accounts on the site because he had discussed terrorism, but failed to relay concerns to the security services.
But the report concluded: “Counterspeech and positive measures are critical in challenging the sources of extremism and terrorism-related material online.”
It added: “Expanding negative measures to include unwanted extremist content that does not breach defined legal terms would push users that feel targeted into the dark web where monitoring Is no longer possible.
“This increases security risks if counter-terrorism and counter-extremism practitioners are impeded from monitoring and surveillance.”
Jonathan Russell, political liaison officer for Quilliam, said: “Recognising that censorship alone is ineffective and counterproductive in efforts to counter online extremism, the government should consider building an online dimension into Prevent.
“This would enable positive counterspeech to come from civil society to challenge the ideologies and narratives that underpin extremism of all kinds”.
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