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Extremist NFTs: How Does Blockchain Immortalise Extremism?

Extremist NFTs: How Does Blockchain Immortalise Extremism?
14th April 2023 Dr. Chamila Liyanage
In Insights

Introduction

Blockchain allows users to preserve unique art, games, and photographs. One of the famous examples is the art collection by Beeple, who sold a piece named ‘Everydays: the First 5,000 Days’ (2021) for a record $69.3 million. Islamic extremism is now receiving a boost from the blockchain, which allows extremists to create and preserve extremist artefacts indefinitely, potentially inspiring future pseudo-religious extremist generations.  These artefacts can be passed on, and increase in sentimentality with time.  What if Islamic extremists seize the technological opening of blockchain to create artefacts that inspire further generations of extremism? This Insight examines the pseudo-religious sentimentalism of Islamic extremism, expressed through their artefacts on the blockchain, and questions how such artefacts would increase extremist appeal and affect individual behaviour, and how to mitigate this unique threat. This Insight focuses particularly on the Islamic extremist content on blockchain made available by OpenSea, the world’s largest online non-fungible token (NFT) marketplace.  

Blockchain and the End of Content Moderation

The decentralised web, or Web 3.0, is based on the concept of ending centralised control and releasing the ownership of the web from tech companies to individuals through shared ownership. The centralised web is located on servers of hosting companies that make it available for users worldwide. This version, known as Web 2.0, is easy to monitor and control from where the servers are located, often in secure data centres. Web 3.0 redistributes ownership of the web, releasing control to anyone in the world through blockchain technology. 

Blockchain is a decentralised public ledger to record transactions devoid of any single ownership or control. This ends the monopoly of the information held by centralised actors, democratising the web in the hands of the people. Web 3.0 empowers the world and its inhabitants, ending the monopoly of information, today’s most precious commodity. However, this democratic move to empower individuals by giving them ownership of their information can pose some challenges. In today’s global context, the decentralised web and its technologies can be easily turned against what it stands for – promoting a free and fairer world, ending information monopoly, and aiming for equality and empowerment of world citizens. How does Web 3.0, in the hands of extremists, go against the fundamental tenets of shared ownership of information? 

Blockchain uses a public record-keeping mechanism or a ledger distributed to users without centralised control, allowing users to own and keep track of their data. This also means that no central authority rules decentralised data. With this, comes the unravelling of content moderation. Content moderation and the deplatforming of harmful actors achieved considerable gains in the battle for moderating the Internet. Tech companies, with the help of a slew of analysts, experts, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies, remove harmful content from the web, ensuring it does not affect web consumers. With Web 3.0 and the democratisation of data in the hands of the people, moderators will not have a role in Web 3.0 as content moderation is no longer possible. This presents an important challenge: who will deal with terrorists, extremists, religious fanatics, organised criminals, and other harmful agents that get ownership of their harmful contents? 

Islamic Extremist Content on OpenSea

OpenSea provides evidence of how extremist actors are using the blockchain to curate extremism. OpenSea is an online Non-Fungible Token (NFT) marketplace with a January 2022 value exceeding $ 13 billion. NFTs are recorded on a blockchain, making each piece unique, and each comes with a digital certificate for authenticity. NFTs are assets, each assigned with a unique identification code or a token via a blockchain. These assets can be sold like any other unique items, such as artworks and valuables. OpenSea is influential and impacts NFT creators, collectors, and enthusiasts. OpenSea is also a well-placed marketplace among key NFT marketplaces such as Rarible. 

There is evidence that OpenSea is currently hosting Islamic extremist content on the blockchain. For example, the Polygon blockchain on OpenSea holds ten copies of a life-like portrait of a renowned Islamic terror leader who is now deceased, with five collectors retaining the ownership of these unique pieces. Another collection of extremist content to martyrise the Taliban holds 638 unique items, again on the Polygon blockchain, alarmingly with a total of 165 owners. Ethereum blockchain on OpenSea has another collection of 773 unique items, glorifying al-Qaeda, with only one owner so far. Ethereum blockchain on OpenSea holds another collection of 913 unique items with seven owners, which tries to iconise jihad in the same way that the famous Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC) and Crypto Punks created trends based on their items on Ethereum blockchain. Ethereum blockchain also holds a collection of 123 unique items, aiming to sentimentalise Islamic terrorism. Another observably influential collection on the Ethereum blockchain holds 911 unique items to glorify mujahedeen and the Taliban. This collection has 470 unique owners and has so far generated 173 ETH (Ethereum), a cryptocurrency (1 Ethereum stands at $1657.50 on 16 March 2023). These NFTs are clear evidence that blockchain is already being exploited to curate extremist contents, which will influence extremism and terrorism for a long time to come.  

How to Mitigate the Threat? 

What makes Islamic extremist content on blockchain challenging in terms of counter-extremism? The lack of content moderation on Web 3.0 platforms allows extremist content to remain online, affecting web users; creating appeal and trends to collect, own, and interact with extremist expressions; inflaming extremist sentiments, and offering durable iconography for pseudo-religious extremism. Islamic extremism stands to receive the benefit of the blockchain as everlasting pieces of extremist content mimic the religiosity associated with their pseudo-religious extremism.

Are there any avenues to mitigate this clear threat? 

On a positive note, no individual is an island. Within the walls of encryption, the inability to moderate blockchain, and the ever-growing privacy considerations, extremism does not sit idly but tends to find ways to express itself. If extremist beliefs are idle only in the minds, those cannot hold the ability to alter attitudes, intentions, and behaviour of individuals/groups, radicalising them and taking them down the path of extremism and terrorism. As Ajzen and Fishbein (1975) suggest in their theory of reasoned action, beliefs develop attitudes, intentions, and behaviour; extremism is not just idle beliefs but is active attitudes, intentions, and behaviour, manifesting in the open, both online and in real-life situations.

Evidence proves that even lone-wolf terrorists used to leave digital fingerprints behind and were not wholly isolated actors before their extremist beliefs turned into violence. This behavioural window of opportunity can help counter radicalisation and moderation of extremist expressions in a world of uncompromising blockchain and related technologies, which have already stopped the moderator’s vital role in removing violent extremist content from the web. Active extremist attitudes, intentions, and behaviour of individuals and collectives must appear to the open both online and in real life. Moderators have social media, NFT Discord servers, NFT forums, discussions and message boards, classrooms, workplaces, communities, and families, still leaving plenty of opportunities for identification, moderation, and countering radicalisation and violent extremism.