Twitter’s Sloppy Regulations on Terrorists

With the emergence of social media, this generation’s teenagers and young adults have become fluent in the technical aspects of the various outlets.  Of course, with this generation there is a new breed of criminal, from gang members to terrorists.  These criminals have taken to social media to coordinate meetings, as well as live-stream terrorist attacks.

In the aftermath of the recent terrorist attack in a mall in Kenya, people have become aware of extremist group al-Shabab’s social media presence.  al-Shabab, which means The Youth, represents the current young people’s connection with social media.  While previous generations of terrorists took to small internet forums with password protection for their discussions, this generation knew that they had to reach more people.  Much to Twitter’s dismay, it has become the perfect place for terrorists to communicate and spread their messages – there is a high degree of anonymity among millions of users and tweets.  This has rightfully gotten the attention of concerned officials about Twitter’s apparently lax regulations on criminal activity.  The company’s head of security said that Twitter uses “both automated and manual systems to evaluate reports of users potentially violating Twitter Rules.”  However, there is simply no way this is effective when there are near 500 million new tweets in almost 40 languages per day.  While Twitter has shut down five of al-Shabab’s profiles, they make new ones with no consequence, with their newest profile having almost 6,000 followers already. 

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A study by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who prepares an annual Digital Terrorism and Hate report, says that Twitter has incited a 30% increase of hate and terrorism in the last year, and labeled Twitter as a “Chief Offender” in limiting and monitoring online hate and terrorism.  The report says they gave Twitter an ‘F’ rating because they find dozens of terrorist profiles every week, but Twitter only disables a few – and the ones Twitter does delete resurface under new names soon after.

The reason terrorists have been actively using Twitter is because they can have complete control over the coverage of their content.  While 9/11 put al-Qaeda on the television screens of hundreds of millions of televisions and radios, the terrorists could not broadcast their inside motives and updated news in real time.  What happened in Kenya was one of the first documented instances of a terrorist organization tweeting during an attack in real time.  The leader of al-Shabab even has a live-stream where he talks about the attack and other inside details.  This is a nightmare for counter-terrorist officials because if terrorists begin live-streaming the actual acts of terror, the attacks “will become a form of theater in which terrorists not only get to write the play but also act as the primary producers of the coverage of the event,” according to CNN’s national security analyst.  This potential for mass coverage would suit the terrorists’ goal of advertising their cause to a widespread audience even further. 

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The terrorists’ use of social media also features something that most social medial users are probably guilty of – bragging.  While most people brag about going to events or running ten miles, terrorists gloat about their criminal activity.  al-Shabab’s leader bragged that their attack in Kenya, saying that it “glaringly illuminated the sheer vulnerability of the different sections of the Kenyan forces, be they police, intelligence or the military.  It’s a disaster for the Western politicians and their intelligence apparatuses who have miserably failed to save their own citizens.”  Their leader is an infamous person, with a $7 million reward for his whereabouts, but this type of open gloating does not look good for Twitter’s brand. 

Thus, with the new generation being articulate in social media, Twitter and other social media sites have to be aware of terrorists and criminals using their services for their advantage.  Twitter has to implement new ways of shutting down these profiles permanently.  At this point, it seems so easy for terrorists to have profiles that it is making a mockery out of Twitter’s policies.

5 comments

  1. I had been thinking a lot about the Al-Shabaab tweets yesterday, and your post made me think more. The Kenya incident caused a lot of people to become aware of what terrorists are using Twitter for, but only a couple of weeks ago the Taliban bragged about killing the Afghani president on twitter too. There are multiple official and unofficial terrorist accounts on Twitter — and FB for that matter.

    After reading your blog post I wanted to know more and I found this article ( http://www.csmonitor.com/Innovation/2013/0924/Terrorists-best-weapons-guns-bombs-Twitter ) and there were two things that were brought up that particularly worried me.
    The first was that I had never thought about what other social media/internet tools terrorists could use to their advantage. In particular, a point was made about Google Earth and how that could be an advantage.

    The second is a quote that the article closes with – “You saw only the attacking wolf, but there is a virtual pack behind them.” I think we need to be aware that although the power can social media can give individuals is great, it can also put power in the wrong hands. As social media evolves, companies need to be aware of how to combat those that should not have that power.

  2. It’s quite startling to see how Twitter gives everyone, including terrorist organizations, the ability to voice their opinion and plan. Though I do believe many of these accounts may not currently be used for the right intentions or the groups have the right intentions, the rest of the world can learn something from these groups’ tweets.

    Governments can look at these tweets and try to understand the rationalization behind the tweets to prevent certain traumatic activities from happening in the future. I do not believe that any government should necessarily work or give into the pressures of these terrorist organizations, but ruling bodies should try to find a way to prevent these from happening as more predicting tweets can reveal future events.

    At the same time, I do begin to wonder the effectiveness terrorist groups have when building a following. If the message is directed at a certain group who can relate to these postings, it can increase the movement. Even though these tweets will often contain biases, and I wonder how much the terrorists will be able to relate with others.

    Your blog brings into question the use of social media and terrorist groups. It will be hard to remove all terrorists from social media, but we need to figure out a way to work with these groups gaining access and promotion of terror-induced activities.

  3. It is very scary to think about terrorists using social media and the internet in general to their advantage. It definitely allows them to intensify their crimes, reaching more and more people. However, on the flip side, thinking a bit more positively, we should also remember that social media and the internet give us a huge advantage to catching criminals. We constantly see posts on Facebook and Twitter asking for help looking for suspects. Even more than that, officials obviously have access to everything we all post, which can help them prevent future crimes.

  4. Wow, I had no idea al-Shabab was tweeting updates during the attacks. Guess I should keep up with the news more. I’ve never really thought twice about the implications of Twitter allowing account holders complete control over their tweets and pages. It’s scary that even the most minute freedoms are abused. I don’t blame Twitter for what has happened – I mean, how would they have known? – but now that it has happened, they absolutely need to restrict the platform to a greater extent. I like that you included CNN’s national security analyst’s point about terrorists’ use of social media in order to reach vast numbers of people. It’s scary how much potential it has to do extreme harm as the terrorists brag about their criminal activity and feel empowered that they are capable of putting on a show for the rest of the world. This has all got me thinking what it is about all the other social media platforms that has prevented any form of criminal or terrorist activity there. Is it just our uninterrupted control over posts?

  5. Very interesting topic to choose. There are social media sites for just about every known terror organization, if not all of them, and you’re right, they are dangerously effective. This could make a very interesting presentation topic if you carry it further.
    The issue of Twitter’s failure to censor such groups is more complicated than you may realize. There are many groups, ie. Hezbollah, that are only recognized by some countries as terrorist organizations, or in the case of Hezbollah, only the ‘armed’ wing of the organization is marked as a terrorist organization in the EU. Additionally, there are countries who deem every Western military, including our own, a terrorist organization. I think the question is not just how to regulate terrorist organizations, but what list of organizations to work off of.

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