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Social Networking Sites and Combating ISIS Terrorism?

Terrorist Postings and Social Media Obligations

Should Facebook, Google, and Twitter have a role to play in combating online propaganda and recruiting by Islamic terrorists? According to a March 2015 study, at least 46,000 Twitter accounts were connected to ISIS. There, Islamic groups spread propaganda, message with new recruits and can organize among themselves including cryptic communications about current and future terrorist attacks.

While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg touts “connecting the world”, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey praises open communication and You Tube is defined as a platform for “free expression”, the companies have taken stances against hate speech and terrorism. In 2015 all networks have spoken publicly and even clarified their policies to further address terrorism.

Language on the policies for blocking terrorism and terrorists are written within each of the network’s standards. Earlier this year, both Facebook and Twitter updated the policies to further clarify their roles in addressing terrorism. 

Facebook, in particular, has a section called “Dangerous Organizations” within their Community Standards. The page reads, “We don’t allow any organizations that are engaged in the following to have a presence on Facebook”: “terrorist activity” and “organized criminal activity.” We also remove content that expresses support for groups that are involved in the violent, criminal, or hateful behavior mentioned above. Supporting or praising leaders of those same organizations, or condoning their violent activities, is not allowed,” the terms continued. This language on celebrating terrorist organizations was added in March 2015.

Twitter’s terms are within a section called “Abusive behavior policy.” Under a section for “Violent threats (direct or indirect)”, the site reads, “Users may not make threats of violence or promote violence, including threatening or promoting terrorism.”

Twitter has aggressively suspended accounts that are also flagged by users. For instance, on April 2, 2015, Twitter suspended approximately 10,000 accounts “for tweeting violent threats.” Twitter also complies with government information requests. Requests for user account information had increased by 52 percent over the first six months of 2015. The largest bump was from the U.S. government, with requests up by 50.2 percent.

You Tube’s policy includes a section on “violent or graphic content” and one on “hateful content.” “It's not okay to post violent or gory content that's primarily intended to be shocking, sensational, or disrespectful”, the terms read.

Facebook, Google and Twitter are stepping up efforts to combat online propaganda and recruiting by Islamic militants, but the Internet companies are doing it quietly to avoid the perception that they are helping the authorities police the Web. According to former employees, Facebook, Google and Twitter all worry that if they are public about their true level of cooperation with Western law enforcement agencies, they will face endless demands for similar action from countries around the world.

They also fret about being perceived by consumers as being tools of the government. Worse, if the companies spell out exactly how their screening works, they run the risk that technologically savvy militants will learn more about how to beat their systems.

Facebook, Google and Twitter say they do not treat government complaints differently from citizen complaints, unless the government obtains a court order. The trio are among a growing number that publish regular transparency reports summarizing the number of formal requests from officials about content on their sites.

Does society have a reasonable expectation that social networking sites will join in the government’s efforts to combat the growing spread of Islamic Terrorism? Is this a violation of what we believe to be Constitutional rights in the U.S.? After all, if we were talking about a U.S. citizen posting threatening or hateful speech, the government might want it to be posted and made available so it could monitor and combat extremist violent acts? Should we make a distinction where ISIS is concerned because of fear U.S. citizens might join our enemies and bring Jihad back to the states?

This is a difficult issue for me because on the one hand I do believe social networking sites have a moral responsibility to do what they can to combat terrorist attempts to convert Americans to true believers. The stakes are too high to ignore the threat and social networks must use whatever they can to neutralize it.

On the other hand, once we expect social networking sites to work with the government to remove violent protestations and abusive behavior that might be attributable to ISIS supporters, where do we draw the line? Surely there are similar sites of U.S. citizens that may be threatening to a class of citizens and that spew hateful speech. It is an ethical slippery slope and one that could have unintended consequences including to stifle free speech in the U.S.

But, in the end the ends do justify the means and taking down ISIS and other terrorist postings and attempts to convert others to their cause far outweigh any costs to free speech. Keeping Americans safe and securing the homeland are values that trump [please excuse the double entendre] all else in these uncertain and scary times.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 21, 2016. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: