Can we trust social media companies to fulfill their obligations and protect us from terrorists online?

By Nitsana Darshan-Leitner

Those who have mastered the craft of social media, amassing hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of followers, have been dubbed ‘influencers.’ This simple reference alludes to the power of social media to influence our communication, behavior, thinking and decision-making.

Terrorist organizations have realized the power of online social networks by creating a global audience for their destructive narrative – exposing those vulnerable to radicalization to jihadist propaganda, inciting violence and organizing attacks against Israel, the United States and the West. Social media is a free, convenient and far-reaching instrument used by terror organizations to amplify their hateful rhetoric, recruit acolytes, raise funds and incite terror and violence.

The recently deceased ISIS founder and leader, Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi, demonstrated the potency of social media in fueling a Jihadist movement. Through grainy, violent videos shared across social media, the media wing of ISIS created the single largest Jihadi recruitment campaign that inspired the greatest migration of Jihadists in modern history. His reign of terror may have come to an end, but the movement that he inspired and his use of social media as a tool for terrorist organizations to spread hateful rhetoric and recruit followers will continue unless concrete steps are taken to wipe terrorism from the social media landscape.

Social Media: Providing material support to terrorism

The popularity of these online communities has transformed social media discourse into the de facto public conversation. As social media users, are we to accept the equal participation of terrorist organizations within this new global dialogue?

The important role social media plays in promoting free speech is not in question. This fight is not about censorship or content moderation, it is about depriving recognized terrorist organizations – those designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations under the US Antiterrorism Act – of a platform to spread hateful propaganda and incite terrorist activity.

Under United States anti-terrorism law, it is a crime to provide material support to terrorists and this prohibition applies to those organizations designated as terrorist groups by the State Department, which includes ISIS, Hezbollah and Hamas. Currently, there are thousands of official and unofficial accounts with millions of followers across multiple social media platforms affiliated with recognized terrorist organizations that are backed by well-funded media divisions.

By allowing these organizations access to their platforms, social media companies are providing terrorists with incalculable material support that is enabling them to spread their inculcating doctrine and wage psychological warfare against Israel, the United States and the entire Western World. This support is so valuable to terrorist groups that it can be actuated with financial support. It is imperative that social media companies comply with the law and close existing accounts of recognized terrorist organizations and prevent future access of terrorists to their platforms.

Terrorists use of social media

Social media platforms are used in a multitude of ways by terrorist organizations. They act as an outlet to share their radical ideology and operational and tactical information. These online communities provide a gateway to extremist sites and other radical content through links shared in discussions and forums. Terrorists can also access a wealth of information for remote reconnaissance for targeting purposes through social media. It has also been used as a real-time communication tool to coordinate attacks, as was the case with the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack and the 2013 al-Shabaab attack on a Nairobi mall.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and others have provided terrorist organizations with marketing tools to identify an audience, target them with easily consumable content, and convert them to their cause. Terrorist groups no longer just have to put their message out there and wait for someone to find it. These platforms allow terrorists to reach and interact with users on a global scale. In the crosshairs of this targeted marketing, and those in greatest danger, are children and those who feel marginalized by society.

Social media lowers the threshold for young people to participate in terrorist activities. They do not have to travel to Syria or Afghanistan to join ISIS or Al-Qaeda, they can do it from the comfort of their own home with no risk of injury or death. The simply spreading of the jihadist message is celebrated and they are bestowed with an honorary status within the organization. Last week, 24 accounts posting ISIS propaganda were removed from the TikTok, a social media video platform used by primarily younger audiences.

It is an obligation of social media companies to safeguard against radicalization and to protect society from the deadly attacks that result from this incitement of violence. We must hold them accountable.

Banning terrorists from social media

Terrorist organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah and ISIS have well-developed and financed media wings that post press releases, photographs, eulogies of so-called martyrs and videos on websites and social media accounts. In addition, the evolution of the news cycle has transformed social media into a source of real-time news. An online presence provides these organizations with legitimacy and credibility, elevating their cause and undermining the American and Western institutions they seek to destroy.

Social media companies have taken steps to remove accounts associated with terrorist activities, but their measures have not gone far enough. A study published by Stanford University found that accounts likely associated with terrorist organizations shared more content and were suspended later than other accounts violating Twitter’s terms of use. However, Twitter has yet to suspend thousands of other official channels operated by designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations that continue to operate on the platform today.

A bipartisan group of Congressmen recently demanded that social media companies voluntarily comply with legal statutes banning the material support of terrorism by removing the official accounts of several terrorist organizations – including Hamas and Hezbollah. While Facebook, YouTube and others acted upon the request, Twitter defiantly refused, issuing an absurd defense of their decision stating that they make a differentiation between terrorist groups and “groups that have reformed or are currently engaging in peaceful resolution processes.”

This argument neglects to consider the fact that organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah are built on a foundational ideology of violence and terror. They represent a real threat to the democratic values of the West and the existence of Israel. More importantly, this act by Twitter is a flagrant violation of US law.

Under public pressure, Twitter reversed its decision just a week later. The platform has suspended handles affiliated with Hamas and Hezbollah, including Hezbollah’s Al-Manor TV which posted breaking news in Arabic and English.

Establishing a safe space on social media

When it comes to defending their platforms, social media companies often cite a legal loophole that shields them from legal responsibility for content posted by users on their platform. This argument relies on a dated piece of legislation – Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act– that was written in 1996 at a time when the internet did not resemble the complicated beast that it is today. In several court cases, including one filed by Shurat HaDin (Force v. Facebook), judges have concluded in their ruling that social media companies are not the publisher of third-party information and are therefore protected from liability under this law.

This is not the first time that this legal loophole was used as a defense for websites that create online communities and facilitate communication. Websites accused of enabling sex trafficking used this law to shield their criminal behavior, but the law was amended to require the removal of material violating federal and state sex trafficking laws. Similar legislation should be enacted that forces social media companies to comply with federal anti-terrorism laws and remove designated terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah from their platforms.

It is past the time for social media companies to stop enabling terrorism and start putting public safety before profits. Social media companies must immediately and completely remove all accounts and content related to designated terrorist organizations in compliance with US antiterrorism law. In doing this, we can deliver a severe blow to the ability of these terrorist groups to organize, communicate and grow.

They have begun to acknowledge the role that they play in supporting terrorism by allowing these groups to freely use their platforms, but there remain thousands of active accounts in addition to those accounts that have been suspended. It is our duty to continue fighting to ensure that terrorist organizations are removed from social media indefinitely. We must put an end to terrorists’ use of social media now.

The consequences of allowing these organizations to continue their unmitigated access to social media will be dangerous, or much worse: deadly.