Up until his death at the hands of US forces in 2011, Anwar al-Awlaki was a major voice for Islamic extremists, advocating for war and attacks against the US, and helped to inspire numerous terrorist attacks around the world. YouTube recently took the unusual step of removing tens of thousands of videos of the cleric, according to a report in The New York Times.
Google removed hundreds of al-Awalaki’s videos in 2010 which directly advocated violence, following the conviction of Roshonara Choudhry, a radicalized follower who stabbed British MP Stephen Timms earlier that year. At the time, a YouTube spokesperson cited the site’s guidelines against inciting violence. But al-Awalaki posted tens of thousands of other videos, and in subsequent years, was cited as an influence in other notable terrorist attacks at Fort Hood, the Boston Marathon, San Bernardino, and Orlando, Florida.
al-Awalaki’s vast archive of other videos, such as his lectures on the history of Islam, have been removed, according to the Times, due to pressure from governments and advocates. Using a “hash function” to fingerprint individual videos that flags and puts them before a team of human reviewers, YouTube can prevent the same videos from being uploaded over and over again. The Times notes that where 70,000 videos associated with al-Awalaki were accessible on the site earlier this fall, only 18,600 remain, most of which are news reports about him and his life. The officials told the Times that while their rules prohibit videos that incite terrorism, removing all of al Awlaki’s videos is a special case.
YouTube and other social media sites have been under increased pressure in recent months from governments to take steps to limit videos that advocate violence and other extremist activity. This summer, YouTube listed four steps to better achieve that goal, which included expanding its pool of flaggers, better use of automated tools, take a harder look at videos that skirt the line, and work with counter-radicalization groups. It’s also begun displaying content that debunks extremism during searches for potentially harmful videos.
YouTube’s latest move has been hailed by counter-extremism groups, who say that despite al-Awalaki’s death, he’s remained an influential recruited for groups such as ISIS. While his videos will be harder to find on the site, the Times reports that his videos can be found on other video sharing sites, such as DailyMotion, the Internet Archive, and Facebook.