Can Twitter Materially Support ISIS While Actively Working to Defeat It?

By J.M. Berger
Friday, February 19, 2016, 3:35 PM

Can you provide material support to a terrorist organization at the same time that you are actively and effectively working against that organization?

In a new study published this week by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, analyst Heather Perez and I examined the war between Twitter and ISIS for control of the online battle space.

By analyzing English-language ISIS supporters, we found that Twitter’s increased willingness to suspend users and make other changes to its terms of service have measurably reduced the size and activity of ISIS support networks on the platform, including steady reductions in follower counts and tweets per day.

Individual ISIS supporters who created multiple accounts and saw them repeatedly suspended suffered a disastrous loss of followers. One member of this group, which included important ISIS provocateurs and highly active cheerleaders, saw his followers drop from more than 2,000 in August 2015 to just over 700 in September. The user had repeatedly changed his online handle in attempts to avoid further suspension, and as of this week, he had fewer than 40 followers before being suspended yet again. Even when he was still online, his Twitter friends couldn’t find him.

In short, we found that Twitter suspensions are working. ISIS networks are gradually shrinking, and the organization has lost significant broadcast capability since its Twitter peak in June 2014. Yet there are still likely more than 20,000 Twitter accounts supporting ISIS across multiple languages, and its propaganda remains readily available on the platform, although in a more limited way than before.

These factors would likely complicate any prospect that the social media platform could be held criminally or civilly liable for hosting ISIS content, the topic of a recent Lawfare discussion about material support laws.

Certainly, Twitter could do more. Facebook has a far more aggressive stance regarding terrorist content and, consequently, it has created an environment in which it is extraordinarily difficult for someone to use its platform to openly support ISIS. But this has not immunized Facebook against legal action, nor has it prevented ISIS supporters from continuing to use the platform, albeit at much lower levels.

In the context of material support, even comparatively Twitter’s lesser efforts likely matter. As previously discussed on Lawfare, using the material support statute against a social media company is fraught with both legal and political complications.

Although Twitter has done less than Facebook, it has done more than most of the other companies whose products are used by terrorist groups, such as encryption and firewall software distributors, the manufacturers of pressure cookers and firearms, and name brand companies such as Apple and Toyota.

While there may be a theoretical basis for such a prosecution, it is difficult to see how it would be pragmatic, given the company is making a good faith effort to suppress the terrorist group’s use of its platform, and the fact that those efforts are having a negative effect on the terrorist organization. Twitter’s efforts to counter ISIS, which at this point includes fairly extensive changes to its terms of service, are credible enough to carry weight in the eyes of a jury, as well as the general public.

However, there are other implications. One reason that social media platforms have been reluctant to take action against jihadi content is concern about how far those obligations might ultimately extend. Twitter and Facebook have successfully implemented measures against ISIS, which means they have developed tools and policies that could also be used against Hamas and Hezbollah, to pick the most obvious and pertinent examples.

More importantly, perhaps, the company must now deal with similar complaints in multiple global venues, including countries with problematic definitions of terrorism.

Ultimately, we’re only in the earliest days of a long and likely torturous negotiation over how social media companies interact with governments, the public and the world at large. ISIS has forced a crisis of conscience for platforms that were founded on rosy visions of free speech, but it’s only the vanguard of a broader challenge.