|Suspected members of al-Shabaab, the Somali-based al-Qaeda affiliate
that live-tweeted last month’s attack on Westgate mall in Kenya. (REUTERS)
Twitter is home to celebrities, major corporations and even world leaders.
Unfortunately, it’s also used by bad guys, like terrorists.
Last month, al-Shabaab live-tweeting its siege on the Westgate mall in Kenya
that left at least 72 people dead. The account was
recently shut down by
Twitter, but not before gaining more than 5,500 followers.
As it races towards its much-hyped initial public offering, the presence of
terrorists poses a vexing problem for Twitter, which must balance the interests
of users, shareholders, advertisers and even global spy agencies.
“There are many stories of Twitter being used by groups for noble purposes,
but it can also be used for evil purposes. You want to be careful you don’t
become known as a place for dangerous people to gather supporters,” said Tim
Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University.
Even if Twitter wanted to remove the account of a known terror group or an
individual terrorist, the government could pressure it not to.
A person familiar with the matter told FOX Business that law-enforcement
groups have been known to ask social media platforms not to delete accounts
because of the potential to glean valuable intel.
American intelligence officials don’t dispute that point.
“U.S. counterterrorism experts follow the public messaging of terrorist
organizations in part because it can offer clues about how they recruit and the
strategic goals of these groups,” a U.S. counterterrorism official told FOX
In the seven years since launching, San Francisco-based Twitter has
revolutionized online communication and become a powerful tool for people and
brands to get their messages out to millions of followers.
That power hasn’t been lost on terrorist groups. Al-Shabaab, a Somali-based
affiliate of al-Qaeda, has used Twitter to send out real-time messages, images
and taunts about terror attacks, including the Westgate attack.
“The incoherent ramblings of Kenyan officials and the blatant discrepancies
with regards to the Mujahideen at #Westgate betrays their fears,” the group’s
“press office” said on a Twitter account on September 24 during the siege,
according to SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist websites.
Twitter did act to try to squash al-Shabaab’s messaging apparatus, shutting
down about six different accounts, according to SITE.
“Twitter and the other social networks are in a really difficult spot. They
don’t want to play the role of a censor or a screener. But by the same token
they sort of have to,” Calkins said.
Al-Qaeda recently launched its first official Twitter account, which was
shut down soon thereafter.
Terrorists’ Evolving Communications Strategy
While terrorists have long had an online presence, their venue of choice had
been jihadi forums. But in some countries, these forums may be blocked and
invite scrutiny upon visitors.
On the other hand, a presence on Twitter allows them to capitalize on
heightened media attention after high-profile attacks, direct followers and
lure in potential recruits. Terrorists have been using Twitter since 2010, but
never to the extent that al-Shabaab has until recently.
“Twitter can be visited without raising suspicion, is almost always online,
and it is easy to make and promote new accounts,” Rita Katz, executive director
of SITE, wrote in a recent report. “With little effort, jihadi groups and
officials can directly share their positions — on their own terms and in their
own words — to shape media coverage of their actions.”
To be sure, Twitter is hardly alone in appealing to evil forces.
“Nobody is doing a perfect job on this, but Twitter is much less aggressive
about this than just about anybody else. Facebook and YouTube have a much more
concerted effort to at least control this,” said J.M. Berger, an author and
How Accounts Get Suspended
But the spotlight is shining bright on Twitter as the microblogging company
gears up to go public. Last
week, Twitter unveiled IPO documents, setting the stage for the
highest-profile debut since Mark Zuckerberg’s company almost 18 months ago.
Twitter said it doesn’t comment on “individual Twitter accounts, for
security and privacy reasons.”
“We don’t actively monitor content on Twitter — it’s impossible for a
platform with more than 200 million active users sending 500 million tweets a
day, in 35 different languages,” a company spokesperson said. “But we do
evaluate reports of abuse and suspend accounts if they violate the Twitter
According to Twitter’s website, users are prohibited from publishing or
posting “direct, specific threats of violence against others.”
Violent messages are seemingly at the heart of what a terrorist group’s
Twitter feed would feature.
Twitter also said users are not allowed to use the service “for any unlawful
purposes or in furtherance of illegal activities. International users agree to
comply with all local laws regarding online conduct and acceptable content.”
It’s also worth pointing out it’s often hard to verify which Twitter
accounts claiming to represent terrorist groups are legitimate.
From a legal perspective, Twitter is unlikely to be held accountable for
messages posted by terrorists or other nefarious groups.
“I think it’s pretty clear Twitter is under no obligation to do anything
about these posts,” said Joseph Sanscrainte, a lawyer with experience in
privacy and marketing issues. “That would have a chilling effect on the
Internet as a whole and cut back on the ability of service providers to provide
Ethically, the matter is far less cut and dry for Twitter and other
Sanscrainte notes that while one side believes “uncivilized barbarians”
shouldn’t be given access to “tools used by the civilized world,” others
believe allowing terrorists to post messages “serves only to expose the
underlying stupidity of their philosophy.”
Berger said he doesn’t want Twitter to ban all terror accounts, but urged
the company to be more aggressive.
“I think certain kinds of accounts, particularly the ones that have tens or
hundreds of thousands of followers, should be pruned every once in a while,” he
said. “I don’t think we should give them free run of Twitter or any other
“We’re seeing much more pressure on corporations to act responsibly in the
offline and the online world. If I want to appeal advertisers, then obviously I
need to offend the least number of people possible,” said Jonathan Armstrong a
partner at Duane Morris.
In its S-1 filing last week, Twitter reported generating 87% of its revenue
in the first half of 2013 from advertising.
Given these concerns, it seems likely Twitter will need to continue to
address these questions as it grows into a public company.
“This is almost like teenage growing pains for Twitter. Most social media
sites experience this,” said Armstrong. “They will need to be more mature in
the way they approach compliance.”