The Cable

Twitter Suspended Far Fewer Terrorist Accounts in First Half of 2017

The number is declining because policing efforts are improving, company says.

TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY ASAAD ABBOUD
A Saudi man prepares to login into his Twitter account on his laptop on October 6, 2013 at his office in Riyadh. Despite sitting on the world's largest wealth of oil, Saudis complain their salaries are not enough to make ends meet, and have taken to Twitter demanding better income.    AFP PHOTO/FAYEZ NURELDINE        (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY ASAAD ABBOUD A Saudi man prepares to login into his Twitter account on his laptop on October 6, 2013 at his office in Riyadh. Despite sitting on the world's largest wealth of oil, Saudis complain their salaries are not enough to make ends meet, and have taken to Twitter demanding better income. AFP PHOTO/FAYEZ NURELDINE (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)

Twitter suspended 300,000 accounts for promoting terrorism during the sixth-month period ending June 30, 2017, a 20 percent drop compared to the previous six-month period, the company said in a blog post Tuesday.

The reduction in the number of removed terrorist accounts come as social media firms such as Twitter and Facebook have come under intense pressure to crack down on terrorist use of the internet to recruit followers and promote violence. On Wednesday, world leaders will convene a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly to discuss terrorist use of the internet and push tech firms to be more aggressive in removing terrorist accounts from their platforms.

After a bomb exploded aboard a London commuter train on Friday, President Donald Trump renewed his call for going after terrorists’ use of the internet. “Loser terrorists must be dealt with in a much tougher manner,” he tweeted Friday. “The internet is their main recruitment tool which we must cut off & use better!”

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the bombing, which injured 30 people.

By producing slick high-definition propaganda videos, sometimes featuring gruesome violence, the Islamic State has revolutionized the way terror groups communicate directly with their followers. The group has inspired and helped plot attacks in the West by communicating with their followers through a variety of online platforms.

Twitter said the reduction in the number of banned terrorist accounts comes as the company has stepped up its efforts to find and block terrorist content. The company said 95 percent of suspended accounts were removed as a result of its “internal efforts to combat this content with proprietary tools,” up from 74 percent during the previous six-month period.

Social media and terrorism researchers have argued that Twitter’s attempts to remove terrorist content from its platform has frequently resembled a whack-a-mole effort. When one account is banned, users simply create a new one, circumventing the company’s initiatives to police the platform.

Twitter said it has made some progress in blocking those suspended from creating new accounts. In the first six months of 2017, 75 percent of of the 299,649 accounts suspended for promoting terrorism were blocked before ever posting a tweet.

In total, Twitter said it has removed 935,897 accounts for promoting terrorism between Aug.1, 2015 and and June 30, 2017.

Social media researchers say Twitter’s effort to crack down have paid dividends in removing terrorist content and undermining propaganda efforts. According to J.M. Berger, a social media researcher and a fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism think tank, the average age of a Twitter account promoting Islamic State content was one day as of early 2017.

“While it is no doubt possible for Twitter and Facebook to continue to improve the suppression of ISIS on their platforms, and they have to stay alert to new tactics, they are at a point of diminishing returns, in which they would have to invest a lot of time and technology to achieve what would be pretty incremental improvements,” Berger said.

But groups such as the Islamic State continue to use the internet to recruit and proselytize.

As mainstream sites such as Twitter and Facebook have taken aggressive action to remove terrorist content from the internet, the Islamic State has shifted the dissemination of its propaganda to invitation-only forums on the encrypted messenger platform Telegram, according to Michael Smith, a terrorism researcher who has tracked the group’s online presence.

Those messages are then broadcast to Twitter and Facebook by the group’s followers, serving as an amplification device for material posted on forums far from the reach of American authorities, Smith said.

American tech firms, Smith argues, still aren’t doing enough to “effectively deter the uses of their technologies to undermine the national security of the U.S. and our closest allies.”

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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