Online activists have added fuel to the controversy over the effectiveness of Twitter’s attempts to fight ISIS supporters who use its services to spread terrorist propaganda and recruit new members.
While Twitter said it is making strong efforts to shut down terrorist accounts, activists said that not only is the microblogging company not taking down the accounts that matter, but it has even been shutting down accounts of users trying to report terrorists.
In January, a Florida woman, Tamara Fields, filed a lawsuit against Twitter, alleging that it breached the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Act by “spreading extremist propaganda,” which caused an attack in Jordan that killed her husband, a private contractor, Lloyd “Carl” Fields Jr.
Facing bad press and a lawsuit, Twitter published a blog post on Feb. 5, stating that since mid-2015 it has suspended 125,000 accounts for “threatening or promoting terrorist acts, primarily related to ISIS.”
Members of the online anti-terrorist community were quick to fire back, however. They said that Twitter is taking credit for their work, and there are still many holes in its efforts to keep terrorist recruiters off its services.
Several hacker groups, including Anonymous, have rallied against ISIS under an online campaign they call #OpISIS. While most participants keep their identities hidden, most of their activities are public. They often publish lists of ISIS supporters and recruiters, and call on the community to report the accounts.
Through this campaign, Anonymous claims by Nov. 23, 2015, to have taken down more than 11,000 Twitter accounts linked to ISIS, according to a tweet from OpParisOfficial. GhostSec, another hacker group, claims it has reported 19,568 Twitter accounts promoting terrorism.
GhostSec was credited with helping prevent a terrorist attack in Tunisia, and may have helped stop another attack in New York City in 2015.
“Who suspended 125,000 accounts? Anonymous, Anonymous affiliated groups, and everyday citizens,” said a statement from WauchulaGhost, an anti-terrorist hacker with the hacker collective Anonymous, but was formerly with GhostSec.
“You do realize if we all stopped reporting terrorist accounts and graphic images, Twitter would be flooded with terrorists,” WauchulaGhost said.
— WauchulaGhost (@WauchulaGhost) February 16, 2016
After Twitter made its announcement claiming to have shut down ISIS accounts, many participants in #OpISIS saw a very different development. Twitter began banning accounts of users who were trying to report online terrorism.
Members of the community have taken this as a slap in the face. While Twitter is telling the public it’s working to stop ISIS recruitment on its services, it has been suspending accounts of the community that is doing the actual footwork.
Sometimes the accounts get hit one-by-one, other times in groups. Members of the community sometimes rally behind account holders, and Twitter gets them back up and running quickly. Other times, the accounts may stay suspended.
For instance, on Feb. 28 close to 15 Twitter accounts of users involved in the anti-terror campaigns were suspended, including some of the top accounts involved in #OpISIS, including WauchulaGhost’s. Its supporters barraged Twitter with tweets, and most of the accounts were back online about two hours later.
WauchulaGhost said he’s still not sure what happened, noting, “I never received an email from Twitter.”
After one week, Twitter had not responded to an email inquiring why it banned the anti-terror accounts.
Some members of the community said Twitter is suspending accounts in its new campaign to stop online bullying—but that explanation has raised the question of why calling out users spreading terrorist propaganda and trying to recruit terrorists is categorized as “harassment.”
“I can say they are suspending a lot of accounts for harassment. Good accounts not Daesh accounts,” WauchulaGhost said in an interview on Twitter. “Even a lot of our (Anonymous) accounts are being suspended for harassment.”
A Terrorist Community
There are about 2,000 ISIS-supporting Twitter accounts active each day, and Twitter and Facebook are the two main platforms used by ISIS supporters to spread its propaganda, according to a February report from George Washington University.
Of those 2,000 accounts, there are around 350 Twitter accounts that act as the main core for ISIS propaganda on Twitter—and these accounts are used to re-establish the followings of accounts each time one is banned.
Hackers with the #OpISIS campaign against online terrorism have kept track of these core accounts, and actively try to take them offline.
WauchulaGhost said in an email interview that while Twitter claims it took down 125,000 pro-terrorist accounts, “none of our lists were reduced to show that.”
The ISIS accounts are typically back online in short order. According to the report, ISIS gets accounts back online by making new accounts, then using the main accounts still online to do “shoutouts” to let its supporters know the new names of the accounts.
Many pro-terrorist accounts spread graphic videos and images, including of severed heads and executions of prisoners. WauchulaGhost said Twitter does take down these accounts, but while some get banned quickly, the majority stay online for weeks.
He said the fact that these accounts can stay online for this long is “hard to believe,” and noted “There are a lot of people who are reporting these accounts.”
A Twitter spokesperson (wishing to remain anonymous) said in an email to Epoch Times, “We have teams around the world actively investigating reports of rule violations, and they work with law enforcement entities when appropriate.”
The representative said that Twitter’s rules forbid users from making violent threats and promoting violence, “including threatening or promoting terrorism,” and noted that Twitter received 2,436 information requests from U.S. law enforcement in the first half of 2015.
Despite this, however, WauchulaGhost noted Twitter’s system for reporting content violations don’t include a way to flag content for promoting terrorism.
“If they state Violence and ‘Terrorism’ have no place on Twitter, maybe they should add that to the reporting options,” he said. “As of now all they really have is violence, targeted harassment. If there was a ‘Terrorism’ option, it would be much easier.”
WauchulaGhost noted they’re not against Twitter—what he and other participants in #OpISIS would like to see is Twitter cooperating more with the community when it comes to stopping online terrorism.
“At this point Twitter really shouldn’t have to search [for terrorist accounts],” he said. “Anonymous is reporting day and night.”
The overall efforts to suspend ISIS accounts on Twitter have also had a good impact on stopping the terrorist group’s efforts.
According to the George Washington University report, each time an ISIS account gets suspended, the user needs to create a new account, and over time these accounts have “suffered devastating reductions in their follower counts.”
“We found suspensions typically had a very significant detrimental effect on these repeat offenders, shrinking both the size of their networks and the pace of their activity,” it states.