Twitter triggers tension between free speech and censorship
In late January, Twitter shut down the account of the Somali militant group al Shabaab, apparently for violating the Twitter Ruleagainst publishing “direct, specific threats of violence against others.” Less than two weeks later, though, the al Qaeda-linked group was back on the social media site with a different username – the latest evidence, say critics, that Twitter’s policing policy needs an overhaul to prevent use by groups identified as “terrorists” by the U.S. government.
Al Shabaab’s first Twitter account, @HSMPress, was launched in December 2011. Twitter deactivated that account in January after it published plans to kill a hostage – a French commando who was the target of a failed rescue attempt. CBS News reported about the tweet and posted al Shabaab’s photograph of a corpse – a man in a dusty black shirt stained with blood, with two camouflage-colored guns placed on his body.
Though Twitter did not make a public statement about its action, social media analysts said that by posting the photograph and publishing threats to execute hostages, al Shaabab would have been in violation of Twitter’s terms of service, and subject to account deactivation.
Days later, under a new account named @HSMPress1, al Shabaab tweeted its defiance: “Shooting the messenger and suppressing the truth by silencing your opponents isn’t quite the way to win the war of ideas.”
Al Shabaab’s move underscores the inconsistency in Twitter’s policing policies, said critics. “Twitter’s policy on extremists comes off like one guy who knows nothing about the subject clicking around at random looking for trouble,” tweeted JM Berger, a terrorism analyst on al Qaeda and domestic U.S. extremism.
Others say Twitter is simply taking a very liberal approach to enforcing use of its platform.
“Twitter tends to err on the side of free speech,” said Daniel Terdiman, a senior reporter for the technology publication CNET. “That seems to guide many of their decisions about whether to shut down individual accounts.”
That liberal policy is under fire from some groups calling for a ban on social media use by al Shabaab and other militant groups. In September, seven House Republicans asked the FBI to force a Twitter shutdown of accounts used by 52 groups designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the State Department. Leading the charge was Ted Poe, R-Texas, a member of the House Judiciary Committee’s terrorism subcommittee, who sought a Twitter ban on Hamas and al Shabaab.
“Allowing foreign terrorist organizations like Hamas to operate on Twitter is enabling the enemy,” Poe said in a statement to The Hill.
The Republican effort is also backed by Christians United for Israel (CUFI), a California-based group that has petitioned the U.S. Attorney General in San Francisco, where Twitter is based, to demand that Twitter ban designated terror organizations from its service. The group argues that a ban would be justified on grounds that the primary mission of such groups is “terrorizing the Israeli people and using civilian deaths to score political points.”
Calls to ban Hamas or al Shabaab from Twitter need to be based on specific tweets, according to Hanni Fakhoury, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “To the extent that an organization like al-Shaabab is using Twitter to disseminate unprotected speech, the government can ask Twitter to shut it down,” he said. “But apart from that, there shouldn’t be that broad right to say that we don’t like this group and they don’t get to speak.”
Although the momentum for new restrictions does not appear to be strong, there is a growing debate on the power of digital media platforms and whether their use by certain organizations should be more regulated.
U.S. First Amendment traditions and court rulings have long upheld the concept of a robust national public forum that protects controversial speech. But globalization, technology and differing standards around the world have put new pressure on the U.S. approach.
“As we move toward a world in which the United States is increasingly integrated in and dependent on the actions of other nations, we are re-encountering a realm of censorship that is reminiscent of the world as it existed in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century,” wrote Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, in his book Uninhibited, Robust and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century.
Legal and media scholars argue that technological innovation should not change the commitment to freedom of speech – and that allowing extremist groups to use a platform like Twitter does not amount to giving them “material support.”
“We do believe that designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations should still be allowed on Twitter,” said Jillian York, freedom of expression director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Just as The New York Times is not barred from interviewing Hassan Nasrallah,” a top leader in Hezbollah, which is on the U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organization list, “nor should Nasrallah be banned from using a different medium of communication,” said York.
Al Manar, Hezbollah’s media outlet based in Lebanon, has more than 43,000 followers on its Twitter account. Past efforts by the Israel Law Center, Shurat HaDin, to force Twitter to shut down the account proved unsuccessful.
Twitter’s multinational scope requires it to comply with the laws of the country where it is accessed, which has led to an emerging country-by-country policy. In Germany, Twitter moved to block a neo-Nazi group’s tweets in accordance with Germany’s anti-Nazi law. Although the group’s tweets are unavailable to the population it is seeking to reach, an international audience outside of Germany can access the account.
The action in Germany opened Twitter to criticism that it was censoring speech. In a rare public statement, the company’s blog acknowledged the difficulties of operating in a world where social and legal standards can differ from one country to another.
“We will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression,” the company stated. “Some differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there. The Tweets must continue to flow.”