The Twitter Revolution Meets ISIS

The Twitter Revolution Meets ISIS
An ISIS fighter in Mosul, Iraq, on June 23, 2014. Reuters

On November 9, 2015, a young Jordanian police officer named Captain Anwar Abu Zaid walked into the International Police Training Center in Amman, Jordan, with a smuggled AK-47 and murdered five people before being killed. The facility is run and partially financed by the U.S. State Department and trains policemen from Jordan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

Two of the dead were Americans: Damon Creach, 42, a Virginia Beach police officer and a "doting husband and loving father," according to his mother-in-law, and Lloyd "Carl" Fields Jr., a former deputy sheriff in Louisiana who had worked in Iraq and Afghanistan and left behind a widow and six children.

Although Jordanian officials would say the "lone wolf attack" wasn't linked to any group, the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) took credit for the assault online. "The more your aggression against the Muslims, the more our determination and revenge.... Time will turn thousands of supporters of the caliphate on Twitter and others to wolves," the group said in a statement released by its Al-Battar Media Foundation.

Two months later, Fields's widow has taken the step of filing a lawsuit against Twitter, saying the company "knowingly permitted the terrorist group ISIS to use its social network as a tool for spreading extremist propaganda, raising funds and attracting new recruits."

Lloyd “Carl” Fields, Jr.
Lloyd “Carl” Fields Jr. From the complaint

There's no question that ISIS has used the Internet to its advantage. As the lawsuit notes, social media outlets, and Twitter in particular, have played host to a string of videos advertising ISIS's crimes to recruits and financiers: the destruction of monuments; the execution of prisoners, sometimes performed by children; and the murder and decapitation of aid workers and journalists.

ISIS's footprint on the Web is so infamous, the subject has made its way to the presidential debates, where Donald Trump called for "closing" parts of the Web to the group. Hillary Clinton said that Twitter and other companies "cannot permit the recruitment and the actual direction of attacks or the celebration of violence by this sophisticated Internet user."

After the December 2 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, where the perpetrators privately expressed support for "jihad and martyrdom" through social media, FBI Director James Comey singled out Twitter. The network, he said, "works as a way to sell books, as a way to promote movies, and it works as a way to crowdsource terrorism—to sell murder."

It wasn't long ago that the discussion about Twitter was about its power to help overthrow dictators, not its role in the spread of terrorism. Back in 2011, Twitter had yet to go public with its stock and was just five years old—and it was at the nucleus of another movement in the Middle East: the Arab Spring. From Tunisia to Egypt to Syria, Twitter was making headlines for allowing dissidents to connect.

"New technologies have lubricated the mechanisms of revolt," New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote at the time. "Facebook and Twitter make it easier for dissidents to network. Mobile phones mean that government brutality is more likely to end up on YouTube, raising the costs of repression."

In stark contrast to recent calls from U.S. government officials to take terrorists off Twitter, in Iran after the 2009 election the service was seen as such an important part of the protests that the State Department asked Twitter to delay a service upgrade to keep the site running. Movements in Tunisia and Egypt all got the moniker "Twitter Revolution" in the press. Some writers, like The New Yorker 's Malcolm Gladwell cautioned that hashtags were no substitute for organization, but there was no question that tweets and Facebook posts were a big part of the story. Reportedly, an Egyptian man even named his daughter "Facebook" in honor of the role the network played in the revolution.

Back in Egypt, Facebook Ibrahim will be turning five this year, and the revolution that felt like a new beginning has mostly faded. Egypt's new ruler is stifling expression, and the seeds of revolution in Syria turned into a prolonged civil war that ultimately created a breeding ground for ISIS. Meanwhile, in the U.S. Twitter has gone from a media darling to an embattled company, with fleeing executives and falling stock.

And much of the optimism about social media's ability to open societies has also died, replaced by some of the horrors that can also circulate with a hashtag. It turns out it's not just lovers of democracy that can organize online.

For Josh Arisohn, Fields's widow's lawyer, the case against Twitter is an easy one: Under the Anti-Terrorism Act, a company can't provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization.

Arisohn admits that Twitter did a better job of cracking down on ISIS on the network after the beheading of James Foley, but even then it only went after graphic images. The company has since implemented a policy that states that "users may not make threats of violence or promote violence, including threatening or promoting terrorism," and it suspended 10,000 accounts on one day alone last year, The New York Times reported. But Arisohn says the policy doesn't go far enough because offensive content still has to be flagged by other users.

He also points to accounts held by Hamas and Hezbollah, two groups on the State Department's list of terrorist groups. "When you know that a terrorist group has accounts on your social network and you don't do anything about it, you're providing material support to terrorists," Arisohn tells Newsweek.

But the case against Twitter is different than past anti-terrorism cases, which have typically been brought against banks that helped fund terrorist groups. Twitter is an open service, and although ISIS has used it to spread its messages, it's not necessarily responsible for what people post on it.

David Greene, civil liberties director and senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, thinks Twitter could make a case for immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which says that networks and service providers aren't responsible for the content users post. Greene also says there's a constitutional issue. "Those who publish information to the public at large are not generally held responsible for what the people who get that information do with it," he tells Newsweek.

If the lawsuit is successful, "there will be less of an incentive to provide an unmoderated free platform that's available to all people," Greene says. "And that means less speech."

For Arisohn, these arguments fall flat. "There's no First Amendment right for Twitter to give material support to a terrorist group. That's beyond the pale."

A Twitter spokesman tells Newsweek the company has "teams around the world actively investigating reports of rule violations, identifying violating conduct, partnering with organizations countering extremist content online and working with law enforcement entities when appropriate." And, he added, while Twitter believes the lawsuit is without merit, it is "deeply saddened to hear of this family's terrible loss."