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Look at this amazing picture of Jupiter's moon Europa

This colourised picture of Europa is just beautiful.

It's called "Reddish Bands on Europa". Sunlight is coming in from the right; the blueish-green sections are water ice, while the red bands that look like a river and its tributaries is ice containing salts of sulfuric acid and magnesium sulfate. The bands do not flow, despite appearances - they are all part of Europa's frozen outer shell, mostly pure, which has cracked and shifted to expose the darker layer beneath.

It's centred on 2.9 degrees south latitude and 234.1 degrees west longitude, which (assuming Nasa is just stating the longitude strangely, as usually you only go up to 180 degrees) on Earth would be roughly where the Indonesian island of Siau is located. It covers a square roughly 163 by 167 kilometres, or about twice the land area of Manhattan.

This picture was not taken recently. Galileo - a Nasa probe which studied the Jovian system from 1995 to 2003, the first probe to do so - took the picture above in December of 1997 during a flyby of Europa. This is a colourised version, released this week by Nasa (you can see the original monochrome version here, covering an area almost twice as big), and the colour gives us a striking hint at what might be beneath the surface of the moon. In Nasa's words:

The reddish material is associated with the broad band in the center of the image, as well as some of the narrower bands, ridges, and disrupted chaos-type features. It is possible that these surface features may have communicated with a global subsurface ocean layer during or after their formation.

Europa is likely the place where we find extraterrestrial life within the Solar System, if we find it at all. Radiation from Jupiter powers plate tectonics which, in turn, leads to volcanism which, in turn, means a steady recycling of minerals and heat throughout the vast ocean that covers it. Deep sea vents there, as on Earth, might be home to simple bacteria-like organisms. Most of what we know about Europa came from Galileo, and it's remarkable that we gathered so much information that we're still digging through it today for further clues about what conditions there are like.

And yet. Look at that image. It has the strange shimmer of a still from a VHS tape, and the look of clay under a microscope. It is undoubtedly an alien world, made more alien through the artefacts of colourisation and the passage of time. And it is gorgeous, isn't it?

The European Space Agency will be launching Juice (the Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer) in 2022, another probe that will fly past Europa (and Ganymede, and Callisto) for further study; Nasa may launch a robotic lander aimed at Europa around the same time.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.