It’s an important question with no satisfactory answer — to what extent should the Internet curtail freedom of speech? The Web is now a platform accessible to a significant proportion of the global population, and it has become the go-to place for expressing a myriad of viewpoints. And in skilled hands, it has become an incredibly powerful medium through which to spread dangerous propaganda.
And none of the Web or social media’s power has been lost upon ISIS, the terrorist organization that has long utilized tools like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter to not only propagate its ideas, but also recruit would-be terrorists. Now, Tamara Fields, the widow of an American killed in a terrorist attack perpetrated by ISIS has brought a lawsuit against Twitter, claiming that the platform has not only given the Islamic State a voice, but indeed a microphone for dangerous and deadly opinions.
“For years, Twitter has knowingly permitted the terrorist group ISIS to use its social network as a tool for spreading extremist propaganda, raising funds and attracting new recruits,” the lawsuit claims, “This material support has been instrumental to the rise of ISIS and has enabled it to carry out numerous terrorist attacks.” One such attack occurred on November 9, during which a gunman opened fire at an international police training center in Jordan, killing five people, including 46-year-old contractor Lloyd Carl Fields, Jr., the plaintiff’s husband.
“Without Twitter, the explosive growth of ISIS over the last few years into the most-feared terrorist group in the world would not have been possible,” said Fields in her complaint.
It is accurate to say that the growth of Twitter has been rather “explosive.” An analysis published by the Brookings Institute in March of last year estimated that “at least 46,000 Twitter accounts were used by ISIS supporters,” with the 46,000 figure representing a “conservative estimate.” The maximum estimates, the Institute noted, “is in the neighborhood of 70,000 accounts.”
These accounts have not gone entirely ignored by Twitter — last year, the platform received over 1,000 demands to remove content (though not all related to ISIS), 42 percent of which were ultimately approved. “While we believe the lawsuit is without merit, we are deeply saddened to hear of this family’s terrible loss,” a Twitter spokesman said in a prepared statement. “Like people around the world, we are horrified by the atrocities perpetrated by extremist groups and their ripple effects on the Internet. Violent threats and the promotion of terrorism deserve no place on Twitter and, like other social networks, our rules make that clear.”
The American government, for its part, seems to be working with Silicon Valley companies to find ways to combat ISIS, sending a group of senior intelligence officials last week to meet with tech executives. And while no one is suggesting shutting down the Internet entirely (well, that’s not totally true), many individuals — politicians and private individuals alike — have noted that players in the space will have to work with law enforcement to bring ISIS down.
“Social media plays an important role in allowing ISIS to recruit foreign fighters,” said Jimmy Gurule, a University of Notre Dame law professor and former U.S. Treasury Department official specializing in terrorist financing, in an interview with Reuters. “But at the end of the day, is there a sufficient nexus between ISIS’ use of Twitter and acts of terror?” he continued. “I’m not saying you can’t show it but it’s a real challenge.”