In meetings with U.S. counterterrorism officials, on Capitol Hill and with journalists, I am asked repeatedly about how Twitter has become a driving force behind global jihad and what I think can be done about this. Is it possible to stop the Islamic State and other jihadi groups from using services such as Twitter and whether it is, essentially, a game of whack-a-mole? The answer is clear: A model for action already exists. Facebook has effectively stopped these groups from using its platform over the past few months.
For more than a decade, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) has spent every day monitoring, translating and analyzing online activity by jihadi organizations. It has amassed one of the largest and most important archives in the world of translated jihadi texts since 9/11, serving Western governments, academia and the media, and informing the public. This undertaking includes collaboration between native speakers and researchers stationed across the globe, sharing observations and conclusions about the daily actions and emerging significant trends of these groups. On any given day, there are hundreds of important communications involving al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and other organizations’ activities on online forums and platforms including Twitter, YouTube, the Internet Archive, Tumblr and Instagram.
In September 2008, Facebook became another social media platform that jihadis were quick to embrace. Their forums were being shut down, and, as a result, the groups and community pages affiliated with leading jihadi Web sites found Facebook a suitable alternative. One jihadi wrote: “This [Facebook] is a great idea and better than the forums. Instead of waiting for people to [come to you so you can] inform them, you go to them and teach them!” Al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Somalia (al-Shabab), Syria (Jabhat al-Nusra), and Yemen (AQAP), the Taliban, the Islamic State and other designated terrorist groups, including Hezbollah and Hamas, all maintained a presence on Facebook.
These days, Facebook is much less prominent in the daily reports and summaries of research findings by MEMRI staff. This is not to say that jihadi activity no longer occurs but, rather, it has become insignificant. When a new jihadi account is created, Facebook quickly and permanently removes it.
Facebook’s efforts should come as no surprise — it is the company’s official policy and it has operation teams worldwide to assist. Last September, Facebook spokesman Andrew Souvall made this clear, “We do not permit terrorist groups, such as [the Islamic State], to use our site and we do not allow any person or group to promote terrorism or share graphic content for sadistic purposes.”
Twitter has promised to remove jihadi content from its platform as well, but its efforts have failed miserably and the company’s sincerity in its pledge should be scrutinized, given that groups such as the Islamic State continue to thrive there. Not only do a great many jihadi Twitter accounts remain online, but also the deleted quickly reappear with a slightly altered handle. These account holders triumphantly announce their return to Twitter — some have inexcusably returned more than 100 times.
The explosion of jihadi accounts on Twitter has become so extensive that content once able to be monitored daily by manually scanning and browsing a few hundred accounts, now requires data-mining capabilities in order to review thousands of tweets and massive quantities of posted content. Excusing Twitter from more concerted action on the grounds that it is incapable of dealing with the sheer volume of jihadi content on its platform is unacceptable; it has already been proven that this challenge can be met and overcome.
Facebook, on the other hand, has shown that it is possible to defeat jihadis online, and the technology community can learn from its success. Google, YouTube, the Internet Archives, Instagram, Tumblr, Skype, Ask.fm, Kik, Surespot, SoundCloud, Vidme, Justpaste.it, WhatsApp and many others, including tech giants such as Apple, Microsoft and Yahoo, can all learn from the Facebook model.
It is long overdue that these companies come together to discuss the issue, demonstrate countermeasures, discuss which methods are effective and ineffective, and share lessons learned. This meeting should conclude with the drafting of industry standards to tackle this issue once and for all.
Steven Stalinsky is executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute.