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Thursday, October 10, 2013
 

Terrorists on Social Media: Arguments That Don't Impress Me

My most recent rant on Twitter's policies regarding terrorism has generated plenty of feedback, and I want to address some of the more common objections that have come up from different directions.

All or nothing. 

The vast majority of objections I've heard seem to be predicated on the idea that we can only choose between allowing terrorists unlimited use of social media and completely prohibiting them. This is a straw-man argument. We can enforce some controls over terrorism online without knocking everyone off. All of my writings to date have intentionally addressed only large-scale accounts with tens of thousands of followers, which leads me to the second objection.

We lose valuable intelligence when we suspend terrorist accounts. 

First off, DON'T EVEN TALK TO ME ABOUT THIS if you are using open-following instead of private lists to track terrorist accounts. If you are open-following dozens or hundreds of accounts from a profile that identifies you as a Western researcher, you are ruining far more valuable sources of information than any Twitter termination to date. YOU are the problem, not me.

Beyond this, the argument fails on multiple fronts when it comes to PR spin accounts like Al Shabab's various incarnations of HSM Press on Twitter. It contains two embedded assumptions.

1) That these accounts are a source of valuable intelligence or insight into the thinking of terrorist groups.

2) That the information contained in these accounts is not available elsewhere.

Regarding the first, if you are relying on a "spin room" account like HSM Press to inform your understanding of Al Shabab, you have completely missed the boat. HSM Press is a tool to harass, annoy and threaten. It is not reflective of what is going on within Al Shabab, which brings us to the second point.

Not only are there many other sources online for insight into Al Shabab's thinking, those other sources provide a much better picture of Al Shabab -- more honest and more complete. (This applies to every other terrorist group too, but let's stick with the original example for now). What's that you say? You want me to hand you my list of these sources? That brings us to the third big objection I've heard.

We should let terrorists operate unimpeded online because it makes analysts' jobs easier.

Unless your job is to catch terrorists and bring them to justice, we most certainly should not.

We should not make it easier for terrorists to accomplish what they want to accomplish just because it makes the jobs of academics and private researchers (such as myself) easier.

If you and I have to work harder in order to make Al Shabab work harder, I AM TOTALLY FINE WITH THAT. And if your research and analysis is such that it can't survive the loss of an account like HSM Press, then I am totally fine doing without it.

If your job is finding, fixing and finishing terrorists, that's a different story. There is a very simple calculus that drives my attitude toward these accounts.

u(T) / u(CT)  = B(term)

Or put another way:



I don't think this is really all that hard to figure out.

One last objection (this one often, but not always originating with jihadis).

We should allow terrorists to operate freely online because we believe in free speech. 

There are so many things wrong with this, I hardly know where to start. For one thing, threats of violence are not and have never been protected by America's commitment to free speech.

Second, I am disinclined to entertain this argument from jihadis who routinely execute people for practicing freedom of speech or religion.

Third, Twitter is an American company based in the United States, making profits and operating under U.S. law -- it is not a philanthropic gift empowering everyone in the world with unlimited power to do whatever they want, even if Twitter wants you to think so.

Finally, Twitter is not simply a public square or a private drawing room, it is a broadcasting tool, and you have no more "right" to use it than you have a "right" to force TV stations to broadcast your opinions.

While current U.S. law is interpreted as exempting Internet service providers from liability for the use of things like telephone lines and email accounts, social media services don't quite fit that mold.

Their private messaging services are similar, but ISP services are private. Social media is public, and I suspect the courts will eventually figure out that there's a legal difference between using your phone to arrange a bombing and broadcasting terrorist threats to hundreds of thousands of people.

But even if liability remains a backburner issue, the fact is that you have no right to use social media. You use Twitter at the pleasure and sufferance of Twitter, and it can revoke your rights at any time, and for pretty much any reason. Period.

Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.

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