Twitter Violates Law by Allowing Terrorist Groups to Tweet

Terrorist groups on Twitter

Hamas’ military arm, AL-Qassam Brigades, tweets graphic imagery and threats.

On July 17, 2014, a Twitter account associated with Hamas’ military arm, the Al-Qassam Brigades, tweeted a photo of a candy egg half-opened with a grenade peaking out, warning Israelis that “This is about to happen.”

On August 16, 2014, another English account for Al-Qassam tweeted “We are continuing our struggle. ALLAH IS OUR GOAL, THE PROPHET IS OUR LEADER, JIHAD IS OUR WAY, AND DEATH FOR ALLAH IS OUR MOST EXALTED WISH!”

On August 22, another account tweeted “To all international travel companies and travelers, Ben Gurion airport is no longer safe around the clock. #Gaza”

Twitter says that they review accounts that are reported to be breaking the rules, one of which is not to make direct violent threats, and that users, including international ones, “may not use our service for any unlawful purposes or in furtherance of illegal activities.”

Federal law states it is illegal to kill, maim, assault, or conspire to do so, and to threaten to do so. As a terrorist organization, which Hamas and its military wing, Al-Qassam Brigades, are deemed to be by the United States and most Western nations, federal law bans them from operating or using services in the United States. But I’ve looked in to a handful of Hamas accounts, including those claiming to be unofficial and official, ones which are English and Arabic-speaking.

One account that has 40 thousand followers, @Qassam_English, claims to be unofficial but appears to give inside information on military operations and makes threats that coincide with assaults on Israel from this summer’s violent uprising. Some accounts, such as @Qassamsms and @QassamEnglish, claim to be official but have less “quality” content and less followers. Arabic accounts, such as @Qassam_Arabic1 and @hamasinfo, have hundreds of thousands of followers, including experts from Washington think tanks.

Their content, on all accounts, ranges from reports of military operations to exaltation of martyrs and threats and warnings to Israelis and at times, anyone who does not agree with them.

So Twitter claims to abide by local law and has the power to deter terror using methods already established by government powers, but their process for doing it is inexact and most often reactionary.

Users report potential rules violations to us, we review them, and take action when appropriate,” a representative from Twitter says.

In 2011, Marc Cheong of Australia’s Monash University published “A microblogging-based approach to terrorism informatics,” a yearslong study on terrorist activities on Twitter and public reaction. Cheong says that in a the case of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, researchers found that information broadcast via Twitter had contributed to terrorists’ decision-making process. In Laura Scaife’s recently released “Handbook of Social Media and the Law,” she makes the case that social media awards such organizations “branding power.” Republican Congressman Ted Poe, of Texas, is the Chairman on the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade.

“Foreign terrorist groups,” he says, “are recruiting and using propaganda (on Twitter) to go destroy Israel, and then the US – we’re right behind them.”

September of 2013 was a watershed period for Twitter’s policing of terror groups, as Somali terrorist group al-Shabab made U.S. news by live-tweeting an attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi which killed 67 people. Twitter scrambled to shut down dozens of associated accounts in a digital scene that has frequently been compared to Whack-a-Mole. This year, they have taken the same approach to accounts associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS, which has managed to spread their videos and make gruesome threats to U.S. officials, the American public and Twitter employees specifically.

So why not Hamas?

As for Hamas, Twitter blocked Hamas’ official English-speaking account- which had 40 thousand followers- in January of 2014, but not its Arabic accounts or newly opened English accounts. So while it did not meet compliance with federal law nor stifle the main veins of terrorists’ communications in their native language, the move appeased English-speakers.

Twitter’s oversight on Hamas’ communications comes at a time when they are building political clout in the international arena, as they joined forces with the Fatah party for a Palestinian unity government in June, and Sweden and the United Kingdom recognized Palestine as a legitimate state in October.

Terrorist groups

A tweet from the Twitter account of Hamas’ military branch, the Al-Qassam Brigades

Khaled Elgindy, former adviser to the Palestinian leadership and currently a  fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution says Hamas’ social media presence is critical to helping its agenda.

“Like all political organizations, its primary interest is to maintain and increase its domestic following and base of support among the Palestinian public (and to a lesser extent the broader Arab public), and secondarily to influence public or political opinion in the international arena,” he says.  “Maintaining a social media presence obviously is critical to both of these goals.”

A political organization, yes, and also a U.S.-deemed Foreign Terrorist Organization. In the spring of this year, the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications started a social media campaign titled “Think Again, Turn Away,” using Twitter and Facebook to communicate directly with potential terrorists posting hate-messages and threats. The widely-criticized campaign, whose Twitter bio reads “Some truths about terrorism,” responds to threats by trivializing them and even poking fun at those doing the threatening, likely in an attempt at showing the pettiness of such passionate hatred.

But Kirk Wolcott, Special Advisor to the CSCC, says the campaign does not communicate with Hamas or its supporters. “Our work, including the “Think Again Turn Away” campaign, involves a focus on countering the actions and ideology of al-Qa’ida and its affiliates…” such as ISIS, he says via email.

In 2012, seven House Republicans led by Rep. Poe asked the FBI to mandate Twitter shut down accounts for designated terrorist organizations, and specifically Hamas. At the time, the FBI responded that they would have a classified meeting with the Congressmen and make no further public statement.

“All I can say is that, my opinion is still that they should take the accounts down.”

Poe says over the phone when asked about the FBI’s stance at that classified meeting. Poe elaborates, though, and says that the FBI “monitors the accounts,” and implies that the FBI values the ability to track and read terrorists’ communications.

“Even after meeting with them, I still believe the advantages of taking them down outweighs the advantage of leaving them up publicly,” he says. “Tracking bad guys…I think we’re smarter. We can do that without having to track them only on social media. I understand the FBI’s position, but I believe they should be taken down. If we have the ability to do it, let’s do it.”

Poe says that the issue is not dropped, and that “legislation is necessary.” He plans on opening up legislation in January to bring more awareness to this issue.

“(Hamas) has not been stopped. They don’t intend to be stopped. It’s not like they’re going away…they’re not going to get tired of killing Israelis. We need to understand that. We have to address the issue.”