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How Social Networks Are Dealing With Terrorists

At the end of January, Twitter suspended the account of the Somali-based Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group Al-Shabaab. The account was taken offline after the group posted a video on Twitter threatening to kill two Kenyan hostages unless the Kenyan government met its demands.

Twitter didn’t comment on the account deletion, but social-media experts reasoned that Al-Shabaab had violated Twitter’s terms of service, which prohibit direct threats of violence.

It is a pattern that has become increasingly familiar. A Facebook or Twitter account affiliated or run by a terrorist organization is thrown into the spotlight, activists and the media buzz about it, it is suspended by the social network -- and then later a new account emerges.

As terrorist groups seek to reach a broader global audience, their migration onto social networks has proven to be a challenge for the likes of Twitter and Facebook. While governments want social networks to clamp down on terrorist groups, Internet activists are calling for greater transparency into social-media companies’ rules and regulations.

Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who recently published a report on the use of social media by jihadist groups, says if groups have their accounts deleted they will just create new ones.

“It creates a situation where it’s like ‘whack-a-mole,’ where something will go offline but then it will create a new account and it will stay online for a little while, and then will be taken offline again and so it’s this cat-and-mouse-type game,” Zelin said.

That’s exactly what happened in December in Pakistan, when Facebook suspended the account of the Pakistani Taliban’s media branch, Umar Media. The page was taken down because it violated Facebook’s rules on fan pages that promote terrorism. Two weeks later a new Umar Media account had been created on Facebook, although it’s unclear if it belongs to the same group.

As private companies, Twitter and Facebook can allow anyone they like on their platforms. But because of their vast number of global users, Internet theorists have likened them to public spaces -- a global town square for the digital age.

Pressure From Governments

Twitter is widely considered a leader among social networks in its commitment to free speech, but some activists are concerned about what they say is the platform’s lack of clear policies when it comes to dealing with extremist or terrorist organizations.

“Twitter really doesn’t have much of a policy related to the terrorist organizations on their platform,” Zelin says. “If somebody is inciting someone or a group of people with violence and it’s an imminent threat, then they will take it down like they did with the Al-Shabaab account.”

Facebook and Twitter representatives did not answer RFE/RL requests for interviews.

Rebecca MacKinnon, an expert on Internet censorship and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, explains that in addition to the sites’ terms of service -- the rules that govern user and platform behavior -- social networks are also subject to the law of the various governments where they are operating.

When it comes to government demands, Twitter, for example, functions on a country-by-country basis. “Hopefully what they are doing is responding to legally binding requests. So if the government has a legally binding order and makes it clear that the content in question is against the law, then the service is obligated to take it down or block it,” MacKinnon says.

In October, Twitter blocked a neo-Nazi account after a request from the German government, which argued that the account violated its laws against hate speech.

In its first two Transparency Reports, which Twitter began releasing in 2012, the company said that there has been a steady increase in government requests for content removal and copyright notices. In the majority of cases, Twitter says it has not complied with the government requests to take down the content.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a U.S.-based Internet activist organization, has also reported on a growing number of requests by U.S. government officials for Twitter to suspend accounts of alleged terrorist groups.

According to MacKinnon, “Facebook is less transparent about how they are responding to government requests or what kinds of requests they are receiving from what governments, so it’s kind of difficult to know.”

Tweeting in English seems to be a sure-fire way of attracting the attention of social networks’ filtering systems. Internet activists have noticed that Facebook and Twitter are quick to react when a problematic account is writing in English. That also means that accounts tweeting in other languages can remain under the radar.

Sarah Kendzior, a writer and anthropologist, argues that Facebook may not be aware of the presence of some of these terrorist groups precisely because they are not writing in English.

“I know that the Islamic Jihad Union, for example, has a Facebook page, not with a lot of people that like it or notice it, and they publish mainly in Uzbek,” Kendzior says.

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Zelin also points out that Al-Shabaab’s Arabic and Somali accounts were never taken down even though they were posting more or less the same material to their English-language feeds.

As terrorist organizations continue to embrace social media, free-speech activists will likely become more aggressive in their calls for more transparent policies regarding account deletions. With governments keen to cut them off, the social-media platforms will have to make the hard decisions of where to draw the line.

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