Who's responsible for stopping terrorists on social media?

Social media is a great bastion of free speech, but this role is being threatened by the agendas of terrorist groups such as Islamic State.

YannickRecently, the widow of a victim of an Islamic State terrorist attack in Jordan sued Twitter for allowing the terrorist group to spread its message. To gain a deeper understanding of why both governments and social media companies have struggled to control terrorist ideology online, we spoke with Yannick Veilleux-Lepage from The Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St Andrews University.

ResearchGate: What is your opinion on the case of an Islamic State (IS) victim’s widower suing Twitter for allowing the terrorist group to spread its message?

Yannick Veilleux-Lepage: The case appears to be the first attempt to hold a social media site civilly responsible under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), which provides remedy for American victims of international terrorism.

However, the Communications Decency Act states that platforms that host or republish speech are protected against a range of laws which could be used to hold them legally responsible for what others say and do. Therefore, for this case to be successful, the plaintiff will likely have to demonstrate that Twitter not only knew that IS was misusing its platform and failed to remedy the situation, but also that her husband’s death would not have happened had Twitter not provided material support.

RG: In your research, you highlight how successful IS has been at using social media to further its cause. If social media platforms crackdown further on terrorist content, what effect will this have on IS?

Veilleux-Lepage: Jihadists continually evolve their use of cyberspace as they adapt to technological change and governmental intervention. If you look at how jihadists have used the internet over time, you can see a clear pattern emerge: each time the government restricts terrorist content online, IS finds new ways to share its ideology. IS now has a decentralized online presence, so even the most effective crackdown on IS’ presence on Twitter will not lead to its defeat. This will simply displace the group and cause it to come up with innovative ways to spread its propaganda.

RG: In your opinion, how much responsibility do Twitter and other social media companies carry for combating the spread of terrorist material on their platforms?

Veilleux-Lepage: This is a very delicate issue, as it raises questions regarding free speech. It can be argued that IS videos constitute propaganda and that their dissemination helps to normalize and legitimize the terrorist group. However, if this decision is left in the hands of social media companies, it would give these companies the power to control public knowledge and discourse. We’ve seen how Twitter has become a global political force during events such as the Arab Spring, conveying real-time information and coordinating actions. I believe that the democratic power of social media comes from the fact that it’s unedited, for better or for worse.

RG: How can governments best go about combating the spread of terrorist ideology online?

Veilleux-Lepage: Western governments have already launched campaigns to counter IS’ online propaganda. The most publicized effort is the Think Again Turn Away campaign from the U.S. State Department, including the satirical recruitment video “Welcome to the ‘Islamic State’ Land”, which illustrates the brutal reality of joining IS. Unfortunately, the heavy-handed efforts by Western states have done little to deter potential recruits, as they lack credibility in the minds of most of their audience.

In order to be effective, anti-terrorism campaigns must promote dialogue within the targeted community, rather than presenting one-sided, government-issued monologues. Using credible voices, such as repatriated foreign fighters who can talk about their experiences and why they defected, is one way of doing this.

RG: What can civilians look out for, and who can they turn to when they notice unusual activity on social media platforms?

Veilleux-Lepage: IS propaganda is not exactly known for being subtle – just consider the beheading videos. That being said, it would be a mistake to believe that all IS material is violent. Non-violent propaganda tends to focus on imagery of genuine state-building exercises, including the establishment of religious schools and the distribution of food. This propaganda is almost more dangerous as it romanticizes the daily lives of IS fighters in an attempt to lure new recruits and to legitimize IS.

Individuals who come across IS’ propaganda on Twitter can report it directly to Twitter using the ‘block or report’ function. Last April, Twitter updated the language of its stance on abusive behavior to include statements ‘threatening or promoting terrorism.’ However, reporting accounts is a short-term solution as IS supporters often replace banned accounts within hours. Moreover, IS uses ‘shout-out’ accounts to promote newly created profiles, allowing them to quickly regain their pre-suspension status. Account suspension is truly akin to a game of whack-a-mole, which is why it has been very difficult to combat IS on social media.

Featured Image courtesy of John Out and About