Social media and terrorism – who should regulate it?

One thing that is obvious is that terrorists love social media.  They are all over it and are masters at using it to their advantage.  This should surprise no one.  Terrorists tend to be two things: young and smart.  Young smart people know how to get their message out and are adept at modifying what is out there to their benefit.

Terrorist use of everyday media is rife and we have all heard the stories.  Twitter has taken down hundreds of thousands of accounts tied to extremists.  Jihadis post their exploits on FaceBook.  Telegram is used to make claims of responsibility for attacks. And the volumes are off the scale.

So what obligations do the companies providing these services have?  Are they responsible for the content of the material placed on their Web sites and apps?  How quickly should they respond to objectionable texts and images, whether they be terrorist in nature or child pornography?

Well, one group thinks they are so much to blame for terrorist postings that it is suing Twitter.  The families of two US servicemen killed in Jordan in November 2015 by an Islamic State operative claim that Twitter caused the attack and was in effect providing material support to terrorists.  This is apparently the third lawsuit they have launched against Twitter.

My first reaction was to dismiss this action as one of those frivolous lawsuits that often get started with little chance of success, even less justification and which clog up our courts.  There is much in the claim that is wrong such as the contention that Twitter was “responsible” for the attack.

But the more I thought about it the more I realised that there is some merit to this.  Companies should be expected to take action against those who use their systems for nefarious purposes, albeit within reason.  And those companies are doing what they can from what I have seen, removing content when it is identified.

The reality is that we need to be realistic about what social media means to terrorism and what is reasonable to expect of service providers.  Firstly, social media platforms do not “cause” terrorism: terrorists do.  The posting of instructions online does not imply that Twitter et al are providing “material support”: there is clearly no intent on Twitter’s part to do so and the company makes it plain what activities are inconsistent with Twitter use.

More importantly, it is not an easy matter to monitor and police online content.  There are tens of millions of users and probably hundreds of millions of accounts.  Those accounts are often created under alias and even when accounts are removed those behind them resurface within minutes.  Keeping track of an cracking down on illegitimate uses is a global game of Whack-a-mole.  Expecting 100% coverage is not reasonable.

Furthermore, many are still of the erroneous view that the Internet is behind terrorism.  No it is not.  Terrorism has always been and will likely always be a human phenomenon.  Technology like the Internet is a tool, not an actor and certainly not a catalyst.

Rather than taking down the technology that has brought so much good to the world, we need to leverage it and beat the terrorists at their own game.  We outnumber them by orders of magnitude and we can create messaging and information that leads to positive action.  This seems to me to be a much better approach than to haul Twitter into court.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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