In an official blog post on Friday, Twitter detailed its efforts to combat violent extremists—particularly those affiliated with ISIS—from using the micro-blogging platform to organize and spread propaganda.
“Like most people around the world, we are horrified by the atrocities perpetrated by extremist groups,” an unidentified company spokesperson wrote. “We condemn the use of Twitter to promote terrorism and the Twitter Rules make it clear that this type of behavior, or any violent threat, is not permitted on our service.”
The post noted that, since the middle of 2015, the service has suspended more than 125,000 accounts linked to terrorism, with the majority belonging to ISIS supporters. The post added that Twitter has grown the size of its team that reviews user-submitted reports about extremist content and has started to proactively look for accounts linked to those that have been banned.
Twitter also pointed out that it has partnered with anti-terrorism nonprofit organizations like People Against Violent Extremism and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, as well as partnering with governments in North America and Europe.
“We have already seen results, including an increase in account suspensions and this type of activity shifting off of Twitter,” the company noted.
The post acknowledged the task comes with some inherent difficulties—not only in terms of identifying which accounts are actively promoting terrorist groups like ISIS, but also in walking the line between allowing for the free exchange of ideas, even those that many would find offensive, and not allowing its users to promote terrorism.
Since early in the evolution of the fundamentalist Islamist group that eventually came to control large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria, social media platforms like Twitter have played a major role in spreading ISIS’s ideology. Unlike Al Qaeda, which used social media only occasionally and in a much less engaging and dynamic way, ISIS’s use of platforms like Twitter shows an Internet savvy never before seen a similarly situated terrorist group.
“It’s easy to bash Twitter for not removing ISIS’s online presence as if it only takes a few clicks, but it requires a major investment in resources with unproven effectiveness, particularly at a time of business difficulties for Twitter,” explained Dr. Ryan Mauro, a national security analyst for the Clarion Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to combating Islamic extremism. “If someone can show a way to automatically identify and remove terrorist propaganda and users, then I’m sure Twitter and other social media outlets would implement it.”
Dr. Mauro added he’s noticed that Twitter has, in recent months, been quicker than it was previously in deleting ISIS-linked accounts. While a user who has his or her account banned can set up another one almost instantly, it takes a while for any given Twitter account to create enough activity such that other users become aware of it. If an ISIS supporter has an account with 2,000 followers deleted, the replacement will start at zero, which is a very real setback in the user’s ability to effectively spread propaganda.
“In the beginning, it was easy for someone like myself to engage an ISIS supporter publicly through tweets. However, whenever ISIS releases something new, it is still quite easy to obtain it as accounts quickly reappear,” Dr. Mauro explained. “The key question is whether the value of inhibiting their communications is greater than the value of the intelligence we get from watching them operate. Important link analysis can be done by tracking who is tweeting to who, who follows and retweets who and the paths of distribution.”
Twitter’s announcement comes in the wake of a lawsuit filed by the family of Lloyd Fields, an American contractor killed in an ISIS-inspired shooting at the International Police Training Center in Amman, Jordan, last year. The civil suit charges that Twitter is indirectly responsible for Fields’s death because ISIS’s propaganda was regularly spread via the social network . “Without Twitter,” the complaint alleges, “the explosive growth of ISIS over the last few years into the most-feared terrorist group in the world would not have been possible.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, commended Twitter’s efforts to remove terrorist content.
“ISIS has eclipsed al Qaeda as the foremost terror threat we face through its slick propaganda and sophisticated use of social media to amplify their message and recruit followers, both in the United States and abroad,” Schiff said in a statement. “Addressing the use of social media by terrorists will require a sustained and cooperative effort between the technology sector, the Intelligence Community, and law enforcement and the elimination of 125,000 accounts propagating violence and hate is an important part of the fight against radicalism.”
Illustration by Max Fleishman