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Friday, November 29, 2013
 

Two Months After #Westgate, Changes for Terrorists on Twitter

After the Westgate mall attack by Al Shabab, I wrote that Twitter had to step up its game and start taking steps to manage terrorist content. Since then, for reasons unclear (but probably related to Westgate) and without much public discussion, Twitter has shifted its policies slightly and its practices dramatically.

On policy, Twitter appears to have slightly expanded its rules regarding violent content and legality of activity on user accounts.

Twitter archives previous versions of its terms of service, but it does not offer a changelog for Rules, which are incorporated into the terms, and it blocks Archive.org from keeping a copy of previous versions of the rules. So this is based on my memory, which may be fallible.

At any rate, the current rules defend Twitter's practice of allowing a wide range of extremist content, but they appear to include some slight flexibility that allows the service to more aggressively police content, if it chooses to do so. While these changes look minor and subject to interpretation, Twitter's actual practice regarding the suspension of accounts has changed dramatically in the jihadist ecosystem, particularly as it regards Al Shabab.

As has been previously reported, Twitter appears to have permanently ended Al Shabab's primary English language Twitter account, which enjoyed several incarnations under variations of the name HSM Press (HSM stands for Harakat Al Shabab Mujhahideen, the group's formal name).

This permanent expulsion pretty much destroys the position of the "whack-a-mole" lobby, those who argue there is no point in suspending terrorists on social media because they will simply create new accounts. As I noted in Foreign Policy, Twitter has ways of permanently banning spammers and it appears to have deployed these tools against HSM Press. While Shabab may eventually find countermeasures, the fact is that HSM Press has abandoned Twitter, at least for a time, because it was too hard to use. The case for "whack-a-mole" -- which was always based on opinions ungrounded in fact -- is dead.

But HSM Press was only ever the low-hanging fruit. A few weeks after Westgate, the three most important Al Shabab members on Twitter had their accounts unceremoniously terminated, which caused some consternation among Al Shabab supporters on Twitter, but attracted no attention from Western media and analysts, because the accounts did not tweet in English. These accounts were far more important to Shabab than HSM Press, because they were used for internal communications and operations. Two of those accounts have returned with lesser networks. A third was re-suspended today. Other important accounts used by Al Shabab members were allowed to continue unimpeded, possibly because of their intelligence value.

In addition to these terminations, a large number of very small accounts in Al Shabab's network have been terminated -- at least dozens by my count. In my opinion, these accounts straddle the line between utility for terrorism and utility for counterterrorism that I outlined in a previous post.

The counter-argument to this falls under unknown unknowns. These accounts might have been terminated at the request of the government, or they might have been targeted by Twitter for reasons unknown. The accounts may have been involved in active terrorist operations using direct messages to communicate, for instance, and those operations could have been disrupted or impeded by the termination.

But from an open-source perspective, at least, these accounts had little public relations value and little broad influence. With a caveat for what I don't know, I would have classified these users under "bias toward non-termination." Keep in mind that (consistent with the chart above) I have never argued for a total moratorium on terrorist content on social media -- I think that is both unrealistic and unproductive. My argument has always been that we should not allow the *unfettered* use of social media by known terrorists -- changing the calculus of termination, rather than adopting an all-in strategy that would drive users with intelligence value offline.

Although Al Shabab's social networks have been a hub of interdiction activity, there are signs of a broader sea change. Most notably, a Syrian foreign fighter whose Instagram prowess was so renowned that it merited a Buzzfeed article joined Twitter recently and his account was suspended almost instantly, followed quickly by his Instagram account. (It turns out there is such a thing as bad publicity.)

But that termination, along with the Shabab terminations, still raise questions of consistency. It's not at all clear what gets you thrown off Twitter. For every HSM Press, there is an Al Qaeda in Iraq P.R. account that remains active, not to mention the Taliban's extremely prominent English-language accounts. For every infamous Syrian Instagrammer, there are many who post such photos without attracting the attention of Buzzfeed.

The question of whether these terminations are being requested by a government or whether they are being done at Twitter's initiative also looms large, and it carries a lot of implications for free speech and editorial independence. Even though I have argued that the balance to date overemphasized such considerations as they pertain to people clearly engaged in using social media to not only promote but conduct terrorist activities, that doesn't mean I am arguing for unfettered censorship either. I object to that for reasons both pragmatic and principled.

In sum, the rules of engagement are not clear. While it might be useful to keep the terrorists in the dark and on their toes, these ambiguities have other implications for those who study terrorism in open-source and for those who craft counterterrorism and CVE initiatives based on the social media ecosystem. I can hardly complain about Twitter's new diligence in tackling terrorism on its service, but I hope that this is not simply a reactionary change, and that there is an ongoing evaluation of these efforts to figure out how to right-size the boundaries of extremism online.

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