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What happens when the war for free speech on Twitter involves an actual war?

What happens when the war for free speech on Twitter involves an actual war?
Twitter has had a busy year. After piling on endless new features, helping spread vital news during Hurricane Sandy, and ultimately playing a pivotal role in the 2012 presidential election, the platform has morphed from the tech world’s water cooler into a major media player.

But grappling with that new role hasn’t been easy. The same user policies written for a Twitter once ruled by Ashton Kutcher and Fake Steve Jobs now seem to carry the weight of United Nation resolutions, directly affecting the outcome of conflicts in far-flung corners of the globe. Most recently, after the escalating Twitter antics between the Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas – marking the first time an armed campaign was announced on Twitter – a group of U.S. congressmen are calling for the shuttering of Hamas’ official account.

Both sides of the conflict began using the platform to effectively live tweet their war earlier this month. On November 14, the IDF’s official Twitter account announced it would begin attacking targets in Hamas in attempts to protect Israeli citizens as well as take down Gaza Strip terrorists.

And with that, things were off. Official accounts from Hamas took the IDFs bait, and a Twitter fight has never been more literal. The IDF (@IDFSpokesperson) and Hamas (@AlquassamBrigade) have gone back and forth, hurling insults and waging threats as they also lodge very serious real attacks against one another. Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari was killed in the IDF’s initial attack, escalating the violence and Twitter conversation to new heights.

While the IDF and Hamas have reached a ceasefire for the time being, Twitter’s role as a mouthpiece for both sides remains contentious. Should Twitter fall in line with government loyalties and act as a censor, or should it be a sometimes-turbulent platform free speech? Personally, I believe that Twitter is an infrastructure for us to create things with, whether they be marketing campaigns, stories, satires, newswire-like updates, or even war time pronouncements. Twitter laid the tracks; we run the train.

Respecting your own rules

Before asking what role the government should have in regulating Twitter, it’s worth asking whether or not Twitter violated its own policies by allowing the conversation between the IDF and Hamas to play out on its network.  When it comes to policing its network, Twitter has a fairly inconsistent history. Just last week, the social network axed the hilarious New York Times parody account (only to quickly restore it), and don’t get me started on the platform’s Verified Account insignia and the twisted tunnel that is its scheme.

According to Twitter’s own rules, the site is not to be used for war propaganda. Specifically, Twitter may not be used for “Violence and threats: You may not publish or post direct, specific threats of violence against others.” As you might imagine, a great many of the tweets from both the IDF and Hamas contained such content – see for yourself below.

The IDF contends this served as a warning for citizens:

IDF tweet warning

You could argue that this is open to interpretation – that when @IDFSpokesperson tweeted that Hamas leaders should not show their faces above ground, the implication wasn’t necessarily a violent threat. But clearly, it was. Regardless of your political stance, the IDF’s goal is to issue strikes on Hamas forces, and vice versa – and both sides are using various social platforms, Twitter in particular, to communicate this message.

Of course, Twitter isn’t the only site that has terms of service expressly prohibiting the use of a platform for threats and violence. Pinterest, Flickr, and YouTube all have similar terms, and are all being used for broadcasting the ensuing activity in the Middle East. These companies have wrestled with their own terms of service too, but Twitter has remained quiet.

When does free speech cross the line?

Late last week, a Congressmen called on Twitter to shut down the official accounts of “terrorist organizations like Hamas.”

“Allowing foreign terrorist organizations like Hamas to operate on Twitter is enabling the enemy,” Representative Ted Poe told The Hill last week. “Failure to block access arms them with the ability to freely spread their violent propaganda and mobilize in their war on Israel. Anti-American foreign terrorist groups around the world are doing the same thing every day. The FBI and Twitter must recognize sooner rather than later that social media is a tool for the terrorists.” A Christian evangelical group called Christians United for Israel has taken the same stance.

This isn’t the first time Twitter has faced pressure from outside forces telling it how to police accounts. Last year, U.S. authorities said they may have the right to force Twitter to shut down the account of militant Somali group Al-Shabaab. Senator Joe Lieberman reportedly tried to have Taliban propaganda accounts shuttered, and an Israeli law firm tried to rid the platform of Hezbollah accounts. It isn’t just a matter of providing a mouthpiece, either. The U.S. government has also been attempting to force Twitter to hand over identification information about the Wikileaks’ account, as well as three allegedly involved users. The investigation is ongoing, although Twitter has done its best to keep user data safe.

Twitter’s transparency reports give some idea what a bind the networking is in, showing users what countries are requesting user account information. Earlier this year, Twitter said it had received more of these requests in the first half of 2012,  than in all of 2011.

Right now, Rep. Poe and Christians United for Israel are only suggesting that Twitter ban Hamas. But there is some language in the Communications Decency Act that suggests any platform that acts as a host to a terrorist implicitly offers its support – which could apply to Twitter.

New problems, new rules

Twitter faces all the increased scrutiny because it has become a legitimate source for breaking news. Digital media has broken and rebuilt the old news cycle, and there’s no going back. We’re increasingly used to first-hand accounts from our sources instead of intermediary publishers and reporters acting as the middle men between us and the information.

The repercussions are immediately obvious: A wealth of very graphic content is at our – anyone’s – fingertips. Regardless of your feelings on the Middle East and the struggle over the Gaza Strip, there is a great deal of propagandistic information flowing forth 140 characters at a time. There’s also plenty of offensive name-calling going on, and the casual way that some of the tweets talk about death is unsettling.

How you feel about censorship will likely play into how you feel about the existence of these accounts. If you feel that more information is always good information, that knowing more, even painful things, makes us more informed citizens and thus more able to form opinions and potentially take action, then you think what happened between the IDF and Hamas and how it played on via Twitter is a turning point for the Internet and media. But there’s no denying that the medium is giving what many consider a terrorist organization – in this case Hamas – an outlet, because it gives everyone an outlet.

A slippery slope

As the American Civil Liberties Union points out, the censoring of ideas is a slippery slope, and one that it would be dangerous for Twitter to tread on.

“Say what you will about Hamas, but I don’t think it benefits American public discourse to censor their Twitter feed, nor do I think merely providing Hamas with an outlet furthers their organizational goals (and, indeed, may do the opposite for many who find their views repellent),” says ACLU lawyer Gabe Rottman.

Going down a path of censorship means social sites like Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, Flickr, and even Pinterest – all of which have seen been used by armed forces – will have to reconsider what’s propaganda, what’s considered a veiled threat versus a legitimate warning, and who they listen to when decided what’s a recognized military force and what’s a terrorist group. After all, some people consider the IDF a terrorist organization – some people think the hate-spewing Westboro Baptist church falls under the label as well. PETA is yet another group whose actions could earn them the distinction.

“I feel that Twitter should leave the account up,” says Jillian York, Director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “While Hamas is listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. and several other countries, it is also a de facto government, and its tweets have been no more or less threatening than those put forth by the Israeli Defense Forces.”

Silence says plenty

All this puts Twitter in a difficult position, which is why it’s remaining silent. Twitter now plays a more and more important role in the news cycle and our general discourse; it takes our pulse and measures our responses. This makes Twitter important, and it means what happens there is going to get attention – attention Twitter might not want as it continues to court advertisers and promote itself – not just as an open-source newswire, but as a marketing medium for consumer-friendly brands. Being able to serve as a source of real-time news during international conflicts is important, sure, but it doesn’t pay the bills.

Twitter, as it usually operates, will decide how to deal with such situations on a case-by-case basis. In this particular situation, both Twitter handles remain up and running, and their tweets are available in their entirety. But it’s upsetting that U.S. government officials are yet again concerning themselves with the platform’s content. And if Twitter, a network that is setting the pace for how social products will connect the world and testing these boundaries, were to respect and adhere to outside censorship, it could set a precedent.

If Twitter were to listen to the U.S. government when and if it orders particular accounts be closed, the floodgates will open. Governments worldwide could start asking the same thing. What would have happened if Twitter had listened to the Egyptian government during the Arab Spring last year? Isn’t there a possibility that something like the Occupy movement could be considered a terrorist organization in another country?

The things we’re reading and seeing on social networks during times of conflict might be tough to stomach, but the consequences of leaning the other direction are too great. It’s better to err on the side of too much information rather than too little. Because pretending part of the world doesn’t exist – or ignoring what happens in it – never works out well.