Why governments should give Twitter a break about ISIS

More than any other tech company, Twitter seems to be under fire from governments around the world — not least in the US, its country of origin — over what the government perceives as insufficient action by Twitter to counter jihadis’ use of the platform to “recruit, incite and horrify.”

While jihadis from Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), also use other social media platforms such as Youtube, Facebook, Instagram and even Askme.com, Twitter seems to be their platform of choice.  Perhaps because they easily utilise it as a portal to direct traffic to some of the other platforms.

Following the White House Counter Violent Extremism Summit, reports abounded that the US government was unhappy with Twitter and wanted 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 wanted Twitter, Facebook and Google to remove terrorist propaganda when authorities alert them to it.

But imagine this for a second: A US government law enforcement agency asks Twitter to keep up an account of a jihadi they are trying to track, at the same time that 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 government 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 ignores plausible scenarios such as the above, it also seems to overlook several other equally important issues in this fight.

First, the use of trending hashtags on Twitter for jihadi recruitment shows account suspension might not be useful in this fight.  There will always be trending hashtags, and tweeters — jihadi 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 as a product is about, isn’t it?

Secondly, tweets by ISIS sympathisers 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 Tweeters should be — and probably are — regarded by law enforcement agencies as a wealth of data to be studied, analysed and used in the psychological profiling of potential terrorists, and in turn in the prevention of their recruitment — as important in dismantling ISIS as airstrikes and cutting financial resources.

Third, ISIS actual fighters tweeting about their activities, thoughts, pictures and videos that show terrain and surrounding geography, or even about new recruits 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 — and who also share and must shoulder some of the burden of defeating ISIS and its likes through education, capacity-building, knowledge sharing and cross-cultural programs, among other efforts.  And perhaps such 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 air strikes on ISIS’ strongholds in Iraq and Syria, the US government still has not figured out how to win the “marketing war” against ISIS. So, the next time the US 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,” — because after all, it is not always the lack of economic opportunity that drives recruits to join ISIS.

Nashwa Hussein Aly