Terrorists on Twitter

Attempts to silence ISIS online could backfire.

An Islamic State of Iraq and Syria fighter holds an ISIS flag on a Mosul street, June 23, 2014.

Photo by Reuters

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a Sunni militant group, now holds territory in Syria and Iraq that is roughly the size of Belgium. But it’s also gaining ground on the Internet.

ISIS’s presence on social media is quite sophisticated and relies on strategies that “inflate and control its message,” wrote J.M. Berger in the Atlantic. In addition to maintaining accounts on popular social media sites, ISIS launched its own app in the Google Play store (now removed) and has utilized hashtags on Twitter to “focus-group messaging and branding concepts, much like a Western corporation might.”

The story of how the Iraqi government is dealing with ISIS’s online presence has taken a backseat to the debate in U.S. media around military action. But it can easily be summed up in two words: not well.

Only about 7.1 percent of Iraq’s population of 32.5 million people use the Internet. Add to that the U.S. occupation and ensuing conflict that has beleaguered the country, and it makes sense that Internet regulation has been a low priority for Iraq’s leaders. Historically, the Internet in the country has remained mostly free from restrictions, and a 2012 attempt to institute a “cybercrime” law failed. Despite slow speeds, Iraq has managed to remain an open Internet zone.

But no longer: In the wake of ISIS’s online onslaught, the embattled Iraqi leadership has scrambled to curb its influence. First, the Ministry of Communications ordered Internet service providers to block Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Just a few days after the sites were blocked, however, the ban was reversed. Then, a ministry directive to ISPs to shut down the Internet in five provinces and limit the use of virtual private networks and other sites was leaked, prompting outrage from Iraqi activists. It has also been reported that the Iraqi government used the opportunity to block pornography.

The Iraqi government isn’t the only entity fighting ISIS online. On June 13, Twitter began suspending accounts belonging to the group. The removal of one account, @Nnewsi, drew particular ire from WikiLeaks, which tweeted its condemnation of the move. The account had been tweeting news of ISIS’s maneuvers, providing journalists and others with a direct account of the group’s actions.

While Twitter is generally transparent about its content removals, reporting legal takedown requests to the Chilling Effects platform, the company has been opaque when it comes to taking terrorist content offline. In January 2013, Twitter deactivated an account belonging to al-Shabaab, a militant Somali group on the U.S. list of foreign designated terrorist organizations. The removal of accounts belonging to designated terrorist groups Islamic Jihad Union, Indian Mujahideen, and al-Qaida soon followed.

Twitter’s rules prohibit, among other things, “direct, specific threats of violence against others,” but the company famously avoids intervening in user disputes, frustrating some and giving the company its reputation as a platform for free speech. It’s unclear, however, whether the accounts in question ran afoul of the company’s publicly posted rules.

Rather, Twitter’s systematic removal of terrorist content suggests that it is internal policy to remove the accounts. Like many of its peers, Twitter regularly publishes a transparency report, showing content removed and user data handed over at the behest of governments, including the United States. During the period in which most of the terrorist accounts were taken down, Twitter’s report shows the company did not comply with any removal requests from the United States.

Another possibility is that the company’s lawyers are being overcautious. In 2011, when al-Shabaab joined Twitter, calls for censorship immediately followed. Anonymous American government officials told the New York Times at the time that they were “exploring legal options” to shut down one of the group’s accounts.

One strategy they may have considered is a controversial part of the Patriot Act that outlaws providing “material support” to terrorist organizations. At the time, however, Twitter didn’t seem too scared: The al-Shabaab account remained online throughout the media firestorm and for quite some time afterward.

If Twitter has since shifted position, it could have something to do with changes inside the company. Twitter’s former general counsel Alex Macgillivray, a leading industry advocate for free speech, left the company just before its IPO in August 2013. The IPO itself could also be an influence on policy, as the company is increasingly beholden to shareholders. (Twitter did not respond to requests for comment about the ISIS accounts.)

But beyond possible legal concerns lies the question of utility: Is there any benefit to Twitter allowing these accounts to thrive?

Anna Therese Day, an independent journalist who has been working on the ground in Syria since 2012, believes there is. “As a conflict journalist, the Internet, particularly social media, has been an invaluable tool in identifying and reaching out to sources and interview subjects,” says Day. “In the case of ISIS, I’ve personally used various Internet applications to stay in touch with them as well as other sensitive sources, and their public internet presence has informed a significant part of our understanding about the group’s recruitment, worldview, and motivations as well as how they relate to each other.”

It isn’t just journalists who see Twitter as an important channel for communication with these groups. In 2011, amid calls from Sen. Joseph Lieberman for Twitter to block al-Shabaab’s accounts, Kenyan military spokesman Maj. Emmanuel Chirchir tweeted that “Al Shabaab needs to be engaged positively and twitter is the only avenue.”

Questions about the utility of the Iraqi government’s measures abound as well. A recent report from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab found that seven websites associated with ISIS were untouched by the latest attempts at censorship. “Given that the insurgency was cited as the rationale for the shutdown and filtering, this finding is curious,” the researchers wrote.

While there are valid arguments for limiting ISIS’s communications, neither the Iraqi government nor Twitter has made them. And although Twitter’s removal of terrorist accounts might effectively shut down the group’s public communications in the short term, the phenomenon known as the “Streisand Effect—wherein attempts to obscure a piece of information have the unintended consequence of amplifying it—coupled with the ease of starting a new account ensures that such silencing won’t last long.

Iraq’s attempts at curbing speech are also likely to have unintended consequences. Although the country’s Internet users are still few, their use of social media covers a number of areas, including citizen reporting. In shuttering social media, Iraq’s leadership isn’t just silencing ISIS. It’s also silencing those voices that would use social sites to report on or protest against the group’s advancements. Amid the ongoing conflict, those voices may prove truly critical.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.