When Terrorists Take to Social Media

Increasingly, groups like Al Shabaab are using social-networking sites to reach a broader global audience. Yikes.

al shab banner.jpg
A soldier of the Kenyan Contingent serving the African Union Mission in Somalia gestures at an al Shabaab flag painted on a wall at the Kismayo airport, on October 2, 2012. (Reuters)

At the end of January, Twitter suspended the account of the Somali-based Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group Al-Shabaab. The account was taken offline after the group posted a video on Twitter threatening to kill two Kenyan hostages unless the Kenyan government met its demands. Twitter didn't comment on the account deletion, but social-media experts reasoned that Al-Shabaab had violated Twitter's terms of service, which prohibit direct threats of violence.

It is a pattern that has become increasingly familiar. A Facebook or Twitter account affiliated or run by a terrorist organization is thrown into the spotlight, activists and the media buzz about it, it is suspended by the social network -- and then later a new account emerges.

As terrorist groups seek to reach a broader global audience, their migration onto social networks has proven to be a challenge for the likes of Twitter and Facebook. While governments want social networks to clamp down on terrorist groups, Internet activists are calling for greater transparency into social-media companies' rules and regulations.

Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who recently published a report on the use of social media by jihadist groups, says if groups have their accounts deleted they will just create new ones. "It creates a situation where it's like 'whack-a-mole,' where something will go offline but then it will create a new account and it will stay online for a little while, and then will be taken offline again and so it's this cat-and-mouse-type game," Zelin said.

That's exactly what happened in December in Pakistan, when Facebook suspended the account of the Pakistani Taliban's media branch, Umar Media. The page was taken down because it violated Facebook's rules on fan pages that promote terrorism. Two weeks later a new Umar Media account had been created on Facebook, although it's unclear if it belongs to the same group.

As private companies, Twitter and Facebook can allow anyone they like on their platforms. But because of their vast number of global users, Internet theorists have likened them to public spaces -- a global town square for the digital age.

Pressure From Governments

Twitter is widely considered a leader among social networks in its commitment to free speech, but some activists are concerned about what they say is the platform's lack of clear policies when it comes to dealing with extremist or terrorist organizations. "Twitter really doesn't have much of a policy related to the terrorist organizations on their platform," Zelin says. "If somebody is inciting someone or a group of people with violence and it's an imminent threat, then they will take it down like they did with the Al-Shabaab account." Facebook and Twitter representatives did not answer requests for interviews.

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