Twitter offers new, though limited, evidence that it’s driving terrorists away

February 8, 2016 

Twitter Inc. announced Friday that it had deleted 125,000 terrorist-related accounts in the last seven months.

The moves comes after months of criticism from President Barack Obama and others who complained that social media companies weren’t doing enough to stifle extremist discussion online.

Still, Twitter was light on details about the deleted accounts and how the process works. It said only that more workers were reviewing accounts, leading to increased and faster deletions.

The San Francisco company didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

The 125,000 figure doesn’t mean that that many suspected terrorists may have tried to use Twitter, because an individual or group could have created new accounts after being banned previously. But the company suggested that it’s dominating the whack-a-mole game, saying — without citing specific evidence — that terrorist talk is "shifting off of Twitter."

The Obama administration still would like Twitter to find a better way to deal with the constant creation of new accounts by the same people.

"They (Twitter) are still not doing enough," a U.S. official familiar with discussions with Twitter executives said in an interview. "They don’t put a lot of resources into this. … What does it matter if they take down an account and instead of ‘@ISILTerrorist001,’ it is ‘@ISILTerrorist002’ two minutes later?"

Federal authorities say terrorists have used Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Telegram and other apps to recruit and organize members. Authorities want to stop the spread of extremist propaganda while gaining access to private messages that might tip them off to impending terrorist attacks. But tech companies, many of them based in California, fear violating free speech rights and prying into users’ conversations.

In multiple meetings with Twitter executives over the past year, Department of Justice and Homeland Security officials have asked the company to take more aggressive steps, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

"They don’t want to be seen as the command-and-control mechanism that allows Islamic State to do what it does," the official said.

But it wasn’t only U.S. government pressure that motivated Twitter to announce how many accounts have been taken down in the past several months, the official said.

"They realize it is not a good thing to be known as the social media platform that ISIL uses most to spread their hate and horrible things," the official said, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State terrorist organization. Officials were particularly incensed last year when Islamic State used Twitter to post the names and addresses of U.S. military personnel.

Twitter called its removal decisions "challenging judgment calls based on very limited information and guidance" because "there is no ‘magic algorithm’ for identifying terrorist content on the Internet."

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called Twitter’s efforts to remove terrorist content "a very positive development."

"Addressing the use of social media by terrorists will require a sustained and cooperative effort between the technology sector, the intelligence community and law enforcement," Schiff said in a statement Friday.

Twitter has about 320 million users and is seeing only modest growth. It vowed to continue to work with authorities to find additional solutions.



McClatchy-Tribune Information Services