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Emergent Technologies and Extremists: The DWeb as a New Internet Reality?

Emergent Technologies and Extremists: The DWeb as a New Internet Reality?
1st August 2022 Inga Trauthig
In Report-Gnet

The Executive Summary and Overview is also available in French, German, Arabic, Indonesian and Japanese.

Please read on for the Overview.

Terms floating around with regard to the decentralised web (DWeb) such as Web3 or bitcoin have become a catchall for anything having to do with blockchains and cryptocurrency. Overall, the major questions related to a decentralised web are coalescing around two themes: (1) Is a decentralised web viable and attractive enough for enough people? and (2) What is the nature of this ‘new internet’ – in other words, will the decentralised web avoid the pitfalls of the current web? The latter is regularly charged for online radicalisation or for enabling authoritarian strengthening. Instead, could the DWeb foster positive aspects such as its potential for activists who could organise out of sight of regime censors using this technology.

This report contributes to both by asking how extremists are already exploiting and how they could exploit it in the future. Why is the decentralised web ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Why do people use it? Is a small percentage that abuses it jeopardising this version of the internet already? What could developers factor into their consideration given existing evidence? What do policymakers need to keep in mind when working on legislating tech? The possible angles researchers and journalists have been exploring with regard to the DWeb are plentiful and range from questions addressing political economy issues to normative ramifications of an ethical underpinning among Web3 developers that ‘Big Tech’ cannot be trusted. For this report, the focus is on the implications for extremist actors with corresponding security implications for societies as a whole.

A three-pronged strategy guided our research approach. To start with, we undertook a systematic literature review of existing material about the DWeb, focusing especially on content moderation as well as extremism. Second, we collected and collated evidence of right-wing extremists and Islamic State entities experimenting with the DWeb. Finally, we conducted semi-structured interviews with DWeb advocates, critics and developers to inform our understanding of this evolving topic. Underpinning this report is its exploratory nature which is directly linked to the fact that the DWeb currently is more of an idea than a reality for most people around the world.

A major risk in the context of online violent extremism and terrorism is that DWeb technology could be exploited for data storage and retrieval purposes. In that case, “[…] decentralized methods of data storage could make it difficult, if not practically impossible, for a single entity to censor content”. As a result, extremist content cannot easily be removed and will thus be accessible to anyone who knows where to find it.

Our literature review concluded that DWeb technologies have been on the radar of extremist entities for quite some time, but the limiting features and related limitations of audience reach have been restraining their exploitation by such groups. However, the pressing concern is that the general expansion of the DWeb could go hand-in-hand with an increased exploitation by extremist actors.

The four main findings for our RWE data are:

  1. (1)  DWeb services are not significantly represented.
  2. (2)  The majority of outgoing links lead to two major social media platforms.
  3. (3)  The right-wing extremist sample shared more links to unreliable news and blogs than more reliable news sources.
  4. (4)  Archiving Services are used just as much as DWeb services.

The three main findings for our IS data are:

  1. (1)  Decentralised services are exploited but not to the same extent as centralised ones.
  2. (2)  File hosting and sharing services are prime targets.
  3. (3)  There is more verified terrorist content on file hosting and sharing, archiving as well as pasting services than on social media.

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