In the little over a year since ISIS declared its caliphate, the terrorist organization has grown substantially. Battles fought against regional forces and U.S.-led coalition airstrikes have not been able to stop ISIS from gaining control of large swaths of territory as well as significant resources.
The terrorist organization’s numbers have also not been negatively impacted. In fact, ISIS has grown substantially thanks in large part to its online recruitment tactics. Just how much has ISIS grown in one year? Terrorism expert Charles Lister estimates ISIS to have doubled in size in Syria and Iraq.
ISIS’ recruitment is carried out almost exclusively online. The organization utilizes social media, websites and forums to entice potential recruits on both the surface web and the Darknet. This has been problematic due to law enforcement’s slow response to terrorist groups operating on the Internet and Internet companies’ resistance to addressing the issue. Twitter, for instance, continues to be criticized for ignoring calls to block tweets from terrorists. Critics maintain the social media giant did little to thwart accelerated calls for attacks during Ramadan and the 4th of July weekend.
Consider ISIS spokesman Muhammad al-Adnani’s use of Twitter to incite violence. “We need not look further than the attacks in Kuwait, Tunisia, France and Egypt over the past week for evidence of how concerning this threat really is,” Mark Wallace, CEO of the Counter Extremism Project, said. Moreover, the two shooters at the Prophet Mohammed cartoon contest in Garland, Texas in early May left an extensive digital trail on Twitter. Elton Simpson, one of the gunmen, repeatedly called for violence on Twitter in the weeks prior to the attack.
A letter sent to Twitter in March, by a bipartisan group of leaders on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, asked Twitter to come up with a way to streamline the reporting of terrorist activity so it can “quickly block content and accounts that support terrorism.” The committee also said it commends “Twitter’s strong commitment to free speech in the United States and around the world,” but added that “when Twitter accounts are used to support terrorism, such content does not deserve protection.”
The next month, Twitter reported it would be cracking down on offensive, hateful or menacing tweets that they say cross the red line from free speech into abuse. This was part of the overhauling of Twitter’s safety policy, which included bolstering the team responsible for enforcing it. Twitter, in fact, tripled the size of the squad tasked with protecting users, which has resulted in a five-fold increase in the speed of response to complaints.
So now, Congress, of course, wants to pass a bill forcing compliance of social media platforms. Lawmakers want companies like Facebook and Twitter to be required to alert the authorities regarding suspected terror messages. A bill has already been approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee and will next be considered before the entire Senate. As is usually the case with legislation such as this, it is supported by some counter-terrorism officials but opposed by civil liberties groups.
U.S. officials can’t seem to agree on what constitutes terrorism, so what would qualify Twitter and Facebook to be arbiters of terrorism? There is already a track record of Twitter shutting down both terror-related accounts and the accounts of those who report the terror-related accounts.
At this time, social media sites are not required to report suspicious messages to law enforcement, as they are in cases involving child pornography. The account might be terminated, but the companies are under no obligation to contact law enforcement.
According to ABC News, “U.S. officials say ISIS and other terror groups regularly use social media sites to communicate with followers and urge them to attack.” And former British counter-terror official Michael Clarke pointed out that, “ISIS is using social media for their battlefield communications.”
Though these are valid points, Nate Cardozo, a Staff Attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) stresses that “in this American democracy, we don’t want our social media providers to be acting as essentially secret police.” Cardozo goes on to argue that, “there is a first amendment right to talk about terrorism… Discussing controversial political, religious, social events of our time is absolutely protected speech. And requiring social media providers to rat out their customers for engaging in their first amendment right to debate important topics is not something that is constitutional.” But, not all talk of terrorism is protected and it would be left up to companies like Twitter to decipher between the two.
This is the responsibility of law enforcement who, until recently, were absent from the online war on ISIS. Now that they have finally shown up to hunt ISIS, infringement of Americans’ civil liberties should not be part of the strategy.
Section 603 of the bill reads:
“SEC. 603. REQUIREMENT TO REPORT TERRORIST ACTIVITIES AND THE UNLAWFUL DISTRIBUTION OF INFORMATION RELATING TO EXPLOSIVES.
(a) DUTY TO REPORT—Whoever, while engaged in providing an electronic communication service or a remote computing service to the public through a facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce, obtains actual knowledge of any terrorist activity, including the facts or circumstances described in subsection (c) shall, as soon as reasonably possible, provide to the appropriate authorities the facts or circumstances of the alleged terrorist activities.”
For the past several months, ISIS’ online activity has been countered almost entirely by civilian volunteers. This would include the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) who launched the hashtag #CEPDigitalDisruption last year on Twitter. The goal was to target and shut down hundreds of terrorists’ Twitter and Facebook accounts. CEP has complained that its attempts to engage Twitter in the battle have not been successful. According to CEP, the company has been, “dismissive to the point of dereliction. We can’t even get them to sit down and have a conversation about the steps we can take together to combat the issue,” Wallace said. “They have stuck their heads in the sand while terrorists continue to weaponize the platform and reach places and individuals they couldn’t reach before.” Additionally, according to CEP, the U.S. and its international coalition of partners is “nowhere near beating ISIS.”
Earlier this year, at a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing, CEP provided some pragmatic solutions that Twitter could implement, including instituting a “trusted reporting status” to governments and outside groups, which would speed up the complaint process against the more suspect accounts.
There also exists a vast movement of hacktivists from around the globe, who operate under the banner of Operation ISIS (#OpISIS), and who have been reporting terrorist social media accounts and taking down terrorist websites. One operator, @WauchulaGhost, who is a member of the Ghost Security team, explained that they generally don’t have many problems with Twitter in terms of shutting down the accounts the group reports to them. But, he said that Twitter accounts with large followings often present a problem when it comes to Twitter suspending them. But, unlike Twitter, he said that Ghost Security does report threatening accounts to the authorities. Not doing so can result in a dangerous situation up to and including many deaths.
Social media users can use Ghost Security’s website to report suspicious accounts and websites. To report a terrorist threat, you can send a tip to the FBI at this link or to the Pentagon at this link.