Governments are taking Twitter to task for inadvertently helping jihadists "recruit, incite and horrify." But they're forgetting what a valuable law enforcement resource the platform is too.
CAIRO — While jihadists from the Islamic State (ISIS) also use services such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and even Askme.com, their social media platform of choice seems to be Twitter, perhaps because it allows them to easily direct traffic to some of the other platforms.
Following the White House Counter Violent Extremism Summit, reports abounded that the U.S. government is unhappy with Twitter and wants it to act more aggressively against terrorists by shutting down clear incitements to violence. Soon thereafter, the French interior minister also announced that his country wants Twitter, Facebook and Google to remove terrorist propaganda when authorities alert them to it.
But imagine this for a second: A U.S. government law enforcement agency asks Twitter to keep up an account of a jihadist they are trying to track; at the same time a French law enforcement agency asks Twitter to take down the same account — while a law enforcement agency in a third country requests the user information for that account. For legal reasons, Twitter staff are not able to share the fact that there are two other governments working on the same case with each of these agencies. Where does this leave Twitter in the eyes of each of these governments? Exactly where it is today — i.e. with the perception that its response is insufficient.
Apart from the fact that asking Twitter and its tech peers to do more in the fight against terrorists seems to ignore potential scenarios such as the one above, it also seems to overlook several other equally important issues in this fight.
First, the use of trending hashtags on Twitter for jihadist recruitment shows account suspension might not be useful in this fight. There will always be trending hashtags, and Twitter users — jihadist or not — will always jump on these hashtags to share content they want to go viral. After all, that is an important part of what Twitter is about as a product, isn't it?
Secondly, tweets by ISIS sympathizers provide a valuable window into the minds of people like Mehdi Masroor (otherwise known as @ShamiWitness), who might not be on the ground with ISIS fighters in Syria, Iraq or some other country, but for some reason finds their ideology appealing and their "cause" worthy of support and applause. Such users should be — and probably are — regarded by law enforcement agencies as a wealth of data to be studied, analyzed and used in the psychological profiling of potential terrorists, and in turn in the prevention of their recruitment. In short they're as important in dismantling ISIS as airstrikes and cutting financial resources.
— Shami Witness (@ShamiWitness) December 8, 2014
Third, actual ISIS fighters tweeting about their activities, thoughts, sharing pictures and videos that show terrain and surrounding geography is useful for law enforcement and intelligence communities — and even to U.S. and coalition military forces, in more ways that can be enumerated here. Suspending these accounts temporarily solves the stress from the heinous content that they might tweet, but only until new accounts are created.
More importantly, confining the fight against ISIS to the limits of governmental pressure on tech companies not only makes these companies decision-makers in a context where they should not be, but also fails to consider the masses of people worldwide affected by terrorism. The people who also share and must shoulder some of the burden of defeating ISIS and its likes through education, sharing knowledge and establishing cross-cultural programs, among other things. Perhaps those kinds of efforts should be the nexus for governmental and tech giants collaboration, rather than asking the latter to police content — which is unfeasible from a long-term perspective.
Tech giants should and do cooperate with governments within legal requirements. But the truth is that although it might be achieving results on the ground, through the coalition airstrikes on ISIS" strongholds in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. government still has not figured out how to win the "marketing war" against ISIS.
So, the next time the U.S. or another government starts blaming tech companies for insufficient responses, they should stop for a second and consider what they themselves have or have not done to perfect their counter-ISIS propaganda strategy and whether or not their tactics have covered issues of argumentum ad passiones, subversive religious arguments, or even the simplistic notion of the "adrenaline rush." After all, it is not always the lack of economic opportunity that drives recruits to join ISIS.