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YouTube removes thousands of dead extremist cleric’s videos

Undated file photo of American and Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki killed by a U.S. air strike in Yemen in September 2011, and who is supposed to have trained French terrorists who killed cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo weekly in January 2015 in Paris. (Balkis Press/Abaca Press/TNS)

In another example of the tech-company crackdown on extremist content, YouTube has removed tens of thousands of videos by Anwar al-Awlaki, the American cleric who is — even after his death — said to be the leading English-language recruiter of jihadists.

A search for Awlaki, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011, still shows more than 18,000 videos about him on YouTube, but that’s down from more than 70,000 results, according to the New York Times.

Awlaki was born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents. His early videos include lectures on the history of Islam; later in life he called for attacks on Americans. Among the terrorists he has inspired are the Boston Marathon bombers, the San Bernardino shooters, the Fort Hood gunman and the Charlie Hebdo attackers.

YouTube told the New York Times that it recently decided to deal with Awlaki’s videos in the same way the company deals with terrorist organizations: by enforcing a near-total ban. Most of the Awlaki videos that remain on YouTube are news clips about him.

YouTube has long grappled with extremist videos, but the pressure on the video site and other tech companies that host user-generated content has intensified with the recent focus on extremism and propaganda since the 2016 U.S. presidential election and other world events.

YouTube and Google this year lost many major advertisers who complained that their brands were appearing alongside extremist and hate-filled videos. Over the summer, YouTube outlined steps it was taking to deal with the problem, including making it harder to find such videos. The company also said it was assigning more people to help flag extremist content in addition to the technological tools it is using.

As such, human reviewers were involved in the removal of Awlaki videos, YouTube told the Times. Then, the company used hashing technology to find and get rid of duplicates.


© 2017 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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