Twitter under pressure to act more aggressively against terrorists

As the Islamic State’s go-to propaganda platform, the social media giant faces increasing demands to police its network

(Yahoo News Photo Illustration/AP Photos) (Yahoo News Photo Illustration/AP Photos)

Twitter, the social media giant, is facing mounting questions from members of Congress and outside groups over the abuse of its network by Islamic State terrorists to spread propaganda and recruit foreign fighters.

An upcoming report has identified as many as 46,000 Twitter accounts that were being used by IS sympathizers during a three-month period last fall — making it by far the most popular social media service for the terror group, according to J.M. Berger, who conducted the study, to be published next month by the Brookings Institution.

But in recent weeks, how Twitter — as well as other social media companies such as YouTube and Facebook — polices this content is emerging as a central issue in a vexing debate that pits the limits of free speech against the government’s need to confront the aggressive messaging of IS and related terror groups. It is expected to be a prime topic of a social media panel scheduled today at a White House summit on “countering violent extremism.”

“This is the way [IS] is recruiting — they are getting people to leave their homelands and become fighters,” said Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, the chair of a House foreign affairs subcommittee on terrorism, who held a recent hearing on the issue.

While acknowledging that IS propagandists use all social media platforms, Poe said “there is frustration with Twitter specifically” over what he views as its insufficient response to pleas to shut down clear incitements to violence.

Poe told Yahoo News that he and other members of Congress will be sending a letter to Twitter CEO Dick Costolo this week demanding that the firm take more active measures to shut down IS tweeters. “We want them to treat this the same as child pornography,” said Poe, noting that the firm has been far more vigilant in shutting down obscene images than it has with those containing extremist and violent content.

But Twitter officials say the criticisms are misplaced and that its policies are no different from those of other social media companies, which rely on the public to report abuses. Officials also say the critics ignore behind-the-scenes cooperation the firm has been providing to the FBI, which at times seeks to use Twitter to track and, with luck, identify IS tweeters.

Rep. Lleana Ros-Lehthinen (R-FL) (left) and Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) discusses the situation in Syria with Tom Warrick (left), deputy assistant Homeland Security secretary for counterterrorism policy and Robert Bradtke, senior adviser for partner engagement on Syria foreign fighters at the State Department and before they testify before a House Foreign Affairs SubCommittee hearing on December 2, 2014 in Washington, DC. The hearing dealt with ISIS and the Threat from Foreign Fighters. (Pete Marovich/Getty Images)

“Like our peer companies, we do not proactively monitor content,” a Twitter spokesman said in an email. “We review all reported content against our rules, which prohibit unlawful use and direct, specific threats of violence against others. Users report potential rules violations to us, we review their reports and take action if the content violates our rules.”

In part, several sources said, Twitter’s problems are of its own making. “Twitter is notoriously close-mouthed in how they handle suspensions and what goes on in the company,” said Berger, an expert on the use of social media. “We don’t know who they suspend, and why. Of all the social media companies, they have been very reluctant to be involved in discussions with the government” — a stance he attributes to the “libertarian views” of the company’s founders and executives.

That attitude led to tensions with White House officials when they sought to engage the company in discussions about the policing of its network, according to two sources familiar with internal deliberations on the issue.

Lisa Monaco, President Barack Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, has privately complained that Twitter “wouldn’t even return [White House officials’] phone calls,” said one former U.S. official. “They were really pissed off.”

(A Twitter official declined to comment on the record. A White House official said Twitter will be sending representatives to this week’s White House summit, but none of its executives are slated to speak, either on the social media panel or at any other summit-related event. “They didn’t see this as a good fit,” said one administration official when asked about Twitter’s role in the summit.)

The use — and abuse — of social media platforms by IS and other terror groups has been a growing issue for U.S. and other Western law enforcement and intelligence agencies. IS has developed what Matt Olsen, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, has described as the “most sophisticated propaganda machine” of any terrorist organization. The group employs a network of cyberwarriors, based in Raqqa, Syria, whose members target young people for recruitment (leveraging popular hashtags like #World Cup and #Ebola to extend its reach) and repeatedly post vile and threatening messages, including graphic images of beheadings and other executions, such as the recent burning of a Jordanian pilot.

CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: A screengrab from an ISIS video reporting to show Jordanian Pilot Muath al-Kasasba prior to being burned alive. (via Storyful)
CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: A screengrab from an ISIS video reporting to show Jordanian Pilot Muath al-Kasasba prior to being burned alive. (via Storyful)

These efforts are believed to be spearheaded in part by a notorious British hacker, Junaid Hussain, who has previously been imprisoned for hacking into former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s address book and posting personal details online.

The congressional concerns about Twitter’s policies were amplified by the recent disclosure of an internal memo written by Twitter CEO Costolo taking his own firm to task for its failure to shut down tweeters who engage in cyberbullying and sexual harassment on its network. “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform,” Costolo wrote in the memo. “We’re going to start kicking these people off right and left and making sure that when they issue their ridiculous attacks, nobody hears them.”

Poe said in an interview that he wants to see Twitter take the same attitude toward IS tweeters. But even he acknowledges that the issue is complicated. In recent meetings, Poe said Twitter representatives have argued that they have taken their primary guidance from the FBI: The law enforcement agency has indicated that it often wants Twitter to leave IS-linked accounts up, so the bureau can track them.

“We’ll take them down when the FBI tells us to take them down,” Poe said Twitter officials have argued in the meetings he has had with them. (A senior FBI official confirmed that the bureau has at times asked Twitter not to suspend accounts to help identify IS members and who they might be in communication with inside the United States.)

But former George W. Bush White House counterterrorism adviser Fran Townsend, who heads a private group called the Counter Extremism Project, which has been sharply critical of Twitter, said the FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies have “plenty of other ways” to track IS tweeters. “The risk of recruitment and incitement to violence outweighs the benefits from surveilling them and finding out who they are,” she said in an interview.

Screengrab of Tweet from twitter handle 'Mujahid Miski'. (via Twitter)
Screengrab of Tweet from twitter handle 'Mujahid Miski'. (via Twitter)

Townsend’s concerns about IS tweeters are personally felt. Last fall, she reported to the FBI about menacing tweets threatening to behead her, made by one prominent IS tweeter who has used the name “Mujahid Miski.” (Miski has been identified in federal court papers as Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, a Somali-American who is under federal indictment on terror charges in Minneapolis and is now a fugitive. Among his recent tweets: “Allahu Akbar, 5 Jews were sent to hell by two brave Muslims. Allahu Akbar, If only every Muslims could kill 1 Jew, everything would change.”)

But Miski’s case also shows the difficulties that Twitter and other social media firms have in cracking down on such content. Miski has boasted on Twitter that his account has been suspended 20 times; after each suspension, he slightly changes the name on his account and pops back up.

“My view is that we can kick them off, but it’s not going to solve the issue,” said Quintan Wiktorowicz, a former White House national security adviser under Obama who specialized in countering-violent-extremism issues. “It really is playing whack-a-mole.”

The only long-term solution is a sustained partnership between U.S. government officials and social media companies to amplify and spread messages countering IS propaganda — a major goal, administration officials say, of this week’s summit.  


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