How Dangerous Is a Terrorist with a Twitter Handle?

There's an effort afoot in Congress to kick terrorists off Twitter. But the government's spies aren't so sure.


Sensational reports in the Guardian and Washington Post recently blew the lid off of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) electronic surveillance efforts, which have harvested everything from phone calls to Facebook posts for intelligence purposes.

Curiously, Twitter still appears outside the grasp of the NSA’s PRISM program, which gathers information from major U.S. Internet companies. But a group of lawmakers are concerned that the popular microblogging service has become too hospitable an environment for terrorist groups. The platform hosts a number of official feeds for terrorist groups, including Somalia’s al-Shabab, the North African al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra, the Taliban, and Hamas.

Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), who currently serves as the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade, is looking to curtail terrorist activity on Twitter. Poe is mindful of free speech concerns, but believes terrorist organizations are not entitled to the same free speech protections. As he argued last year, after watching Hamas use the platform for propaganda purposes during its November war with Israel, "Twitter must recognize sooner rather than later that social media is a tool for the terrorists."

First Amendment activists will almost certainly cry foul. But they will not be alone: This would be one of their rare moments of harmony with the U.S. intelligence community, which has used Twitter feeds of extremists to monitor their messaging for strategies, tactics, and policies. America’s spies also monitor the feeds of extremist personalities and groups to see who follows them and who sympathizes with them, with the goal of identifying potential security threats at home or abroad. In fact, Twitter has made it possible for official bodies to interact with a banned group — even if those interactions haven’t been pleasant.

So while there is no evidence as of yet Twitter has been mined by PRISM — other classified programs may exist, of course — the intelligence community exploits it in other important ways. One former official at the National Security Agency notes, "Twitter is an incredible source to learn what these groups are doing. The FBI, CIA, and NSA not only get a lot of intelligence from Twitter, but there is also a lot of manipulation going on."

Given its usefulness, the former official argues that any initiative designed to constrain terrorist Twitter activity will need to be coordinated closely with the intelligence community.

Legislators have already heard as much from the intelligence community. And they also have been advised that they need to be realistic. They can’t block every tweep with an extremist view from accessing the platform — that would, as Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation puts it, devolve into an interminable game of "Whack-A-Mole." That’s why Poe and his colleagues are looking for more defined policies that allow for free expression, but are also consistent with U.S. counterterrorism policies.

One idea the congressmen are considering is enforcing existing laws that would ban the official Twitter feeds of designated terrorist groups. There is a sound legal basis for this: Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV and Hamas’s al-Aqsa TV have been designated by the U.S. Treasury as terrorist entities, which means they are banned from operating in the United States. While there was some debate over the legality and optics of the moves, both media outlets were ultimately designated because they were owned by, or acting on behalf of, designated terrorist organizations. The designation package is classified, but it is a good bet that Treasury also had evidence that they provided technological and material support to the terrorist groups that spawned them.

Despite their terror designation, al-Manar TV and al-Aqsa TV both maintain Twitter feeds — further underscoring the current disconnect in U.S. policy. The television channels were designated because they are the media arms of Hezbollah and Hamas. Yet, the Twitter feeds — also, arguably, a media arm of both groups — are somehow legal?

How the U.S. government’s bureaucracy arrives at a policy that squares this circle will ultimately be the responsibility of legislative counsel, and perhaps other lawyers on the federal payroll. But Twitter’s own terms of service could also settle it. The company’s "Basic Terms" clearly notes, "You may use the Services only if you can form a binding contract with Twitter and are not a person barred from receiving services under the laws of the United States or other applicable jurisdiction."

Since terrorists are "barred from receiving services" from the United States, this suggests that they cannot legally open Twitter accounts. Why Twitter hasn’t taken action is unclear. It did, however, shutter one account tied to the Somali al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabab earlier this year, because of "specific threats of violence against others." However, the group quickly opened a new one.

Short of that vague guidance, Twitter’s terms of service do not rule out unofficial terrorist feeds, or what we might call "booster feeds," run by anonymous individuals who simply have an affinity for these violent groups. And if the official sites are taken down — either by Twitter or by a mandate from the U.S. government — there will only be booster feeds left.

As York explains, "any effort to rid Twitter of official feeds will only spawn more unofficial feeds." And those feeds would undoubtedly continue to disseminate the same propaganda.

York questions whether it’s worth the trouble, but legislators are not so sure. Poe still wants to do something: "We should not be giving free reign to terrorists to use American companies to spread their message of hate and violence at will," he said in an emailed statement.

Legislators are expected to wrangle over the merits of such a move, and the debate will undoubtedly be influenced by the recent revelations about the NSA’s electronic surveillance programs. In the meantime, 140-character opinions will likely not be in short supply.

Jonathan Schanzer is the senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Twitter: @JSchanzer

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