Tackling Extremist Content on WordPress.com

At Automattic, we build tools that make it easy for anybody to share their voice online. WordPress.com is home to tens of millions of sites, covering a huge variety of topics and issues—from news blogs, to websites for Fortune 500 companies, to thriving ecommerce stores. It also means that we inevitably host content which some may find offensive, distasteful, or even abhorrent.

Like most online hosts, we do not pre-screen the content that our millions of users post to our services. We evaluate reports of content that goes against our User Guidelines or Terms of Service, and take some measures to proactively search out spam or other abusive content that’s posted to our services. We try to make the process for reporting illegal or abusive sites as transparent and simple as possible. If you see a site that you think violates our rules, please report it to us here.

One category of content that has been a focus for law enforcement and all internet companies—including Automattic—is terrorist or extremist propaganda.

The volume of these sites reported on WordPress.com is not high. In 2017, we received 131 reports from government Internet Referral Units that sites violated our policies against extremist content. This is out of the millions of sites that we host. Even given the relatively low volume, we do take this issue very seriously and have developed some specific procedures to address it on our platform.

Policies Against Extremism

We have worked in conjunction with experts in online extremism, as well as law enforcement, to develop policies to specifically address extremist and terrorist propaganda. You can read our policies here. In short, we suspend websites that call for violence or that are connected to officially banned terrorist groups (per the US Treasury’s OFAC list), regardless of content.

We also have other measures that we implement for sites, short of removal—for example, we may flag content and remove the site from the WordPress.com Reader, making the site’s content more difficult to find. Flagging a site also removes it from all advertising programs that we run.

Site Reporting 

One important way that extremist sites are brought to our attention is through reports from dedicated government Internet Referral Units (IRUs). These organizations have expertise in online propaganda that private technology companies are not able to develop on their own. They work to identify sites that are being used by known terrorists to spread propaganda or to organize acts of violence. They report terrorist sites to us using a dedicated email address that allows us to more easily identify reports coming from a trusted source. We work to evaluate and act on reports of terrorist content as quickly and accurately as possible.

We do not automatically remove websites from WordPress.com—a (human) member of our Risk & Safety team reviews each report, and makes a decision on whether it violates our policies.

One important reason that we review each report is to guard against the removal of material posted to legitimate sites (news organizations, academic sites), that discusses terrorism or a terrorist group. We host sites for a number of very large news organizations, news bloggers, academics, and researchers who all publish legitimate reporting on terrorism. In another context, some of the materials they publish may qualify as terrorist propaganda, and would be removed under our terms. It involves some work to review each report we receive and we take the task of protecting legitimate speech seriously.

At least for our services, context is very important and we cannot outsource these important decisions affecting legitimate online speech to a robot. Also, since the volume of reports we receive is not high relative to other online platforms, we are able to use more human, versus automated review, when acting on reports.

This is consistent with our approach to other types of reported content: take copyright infringement, for example. To protect the legitimately posted content from our users, we take pains to examine and reject abusive infringement notices, and carefully review reported content that may involve fair use. We work very hard to get it right.

Data

We have recently started to collect data on the number of IRU reports that we receive, as well as the number of reported sites on which we have taken action.

In 2017, we have received a total of 131 IRU requests.

Of the 131 requests we received:

  • 92 resulted in the removal of content.
  • 20 were related to the Academic site Jihadology.net.
  • 71 were related to files hosted on our CloudUp service (file hosting and sharing).

Of these reports, we took action on:

  • 70% of the IRU reports, overall. We did not remove all reported sites, either because not enough information on context was provided in the report, or because the report listed content published by a legitimate news or academic publisher.
  • 0% of requests relating to Jihadology.net. We did not act on these reports because the content is posted in an academic/research context.
  • 100% of the requests relating to files hosted on CloudUp.
Going forward, we plan to include these figures in our bi-annual transparency report, and would encourage other platforms to do the same.