Tweeting jihadism: The online onslaught of Islamic State and why Twitter fails to tackle it - Firstpost
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Tweeting jihadism: The online onslaught of Islamic State and why Twitter fails to tackle it


In an unprecedented crackdown on the extremist tweets, Twitter has banned hundreds of thousands of terrorist accounts. The Times of India carried a report on its front-page stating that,

Twitter has suspended 2, 35,000 accounts promoting terrorism since February this year.
Many of these accounts are those of Islamic State supporters.
Daily suspensions are up 80 percent since last year.

Terrorism experts and researchers explore that the Islamic State (IS) terrorists use almost all social media platforms, practically Twitter, Facebook, Ask.fm, Instagram, Viper, Whatsapp, Tumblr, PalTalk, Kik, and JustPaste.it. But they have used Twitter most particularly to drive communications over other social media platforms. As a result, counter-terrorism agencies have often criticised Twitter for ‘serving as a breeding ground for the terrorists’. And this is precisely why Twitter is now applying an even more aggressive strategy to eliminate extremism on its platform. Apparently for being questioned on its efforts to combat terrorist activities on its network, Twitter has now announced its committal crackdown on the activities of the IS extremists by suspending accounts and deleting posts that promote violence and terrorism. It could no longer pussyfoot over the online combat against ISIS.

In an article in The Wall Street Journal, Christopher S Stewart and Mark Maremont write:

“Islamic State controls a limited amount of territory in Iraq and Syria, but social media puts the terror group within reach of every Smartphone, laptop and desktop computer in the world. Its potent use of social media has far surpassed al Qaeda, which in past years released poor-quality videos to Al Jazeera and other media outlets to bolster calls for global jihad”.

Several times in the past, Washington and third-party groups have lamented on Twitter for not doing enough to stop accounts linked to IS jihadists. This time, the criticism came as part of the radical Islamist preacher Anjem Choudary’s trial in which Twitter, along with other social networking sites, was blamed for helping amplify the preacher’s hate speeches. A New York Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi, one of the best reporters covering terrorism, told in her recent interview that Twitter has been the “main engine” for IS fighters to further their nefarious ends and attract the new recruits. But at the same time, she explores the usefulness of Twitter to get inside the minds of IS jihadists.

Thus, Twitter is a key tool not only for the terrorists but also for the journalists to cover real issues of terrorism liked with the IS folks. But now when the Twitter Company has more aggressively shut down the jihadist accounts, one wonders if it will also hamper the journalists’ easy way to terror coverage. Perhaps, this is the reason why a request which was sent on 23 June, 2016, to YouTube for the removal of a video: Duties of the Kilafah by Anjem Choudary was refused. Another extremist video, The [Islamic] Caliphate will expand into Europe and US was not referred because YouTube considered it "journalistic" as it was uploaded on Memri TV, a Middle East research institute.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

It is noteworthy that Anjem Choudary had over 32,000 followers on Twitter until 18 August, 2016 when Twitter finally removed the account of the hate preacher who supported IS. He used to post ten tweets a day in his attempt to radicalise more than 32,000 followers. But the removal of his Twitter account came after a year of repeated requests from the UK government authorities which charged Choudary for ‘spreading messages of terror’, as a report in Daily Mail tells us.

According to The Independent, last year in August and in March 2016, a British officer argued that the preacher’s account showed “support for so-called Islamic State contrary to section 12 Terrorism Act 2000” and “breached Twitter rules on threatening or promoting terrorism”. He said it in the British court. At first, Twitter refused to delete the radical preacher's extremist posts. It took the company a year to crack down on the account. Therefore, the company is now facing an emerging criticism of many of its anti-IS users. They are questioning as to why Twitter which quickly responds to copyright issues, did not launch an immediate action on the jihadist preacher’s offensive material despite repeated requests from UK authorities. Even after an oath of allegiance to the IS surfaced online with the preacher's name on it, Twitter remained indifferent to his account. By contrast, Twitter took only a few minutes to tackle potential copyright infringement of Olympics coverage, critics say.

An undeniable reason why Twitter had to pussyfoot over the committal crackdown on the accounts of its pro-IS users is the grave thereat they posed to Twitter employees. In the middle of last year, when Twitter suspended 125,000 pro-IS accounts for promoting terrorist posts, IS threatened the company’s co-founder Jack Dorsey as well as other employees with death. Like Twitter's Jack Dorsey, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg has also received clear threats from the group of hackers working for IS, known as 'The Sons of Caliphate Army'. It posted a video showing photos of Mark Zuckerberg engulfed in flames and as being the target for bullets. This 25-minute video titled, Flames of the Supporters, is has also been authenticated by Storyful, a startup that focuses on verifying news coming from the social web. In 2015, the group issued a clear warning that, “Jack Dorsey and Twitter employees have become a target for the soldiers of the Caliphate and supporters scattered among your midst!”, as reported in The Guardian.

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"Your virtual war on us will cause a real war on you”. It continued: “You started this failed war… We told you from the beginning it’s not your war, but you didn’t get it and kept closing our accounts on Twitter, but we always come back. But when our lions come and take your breath, you will never come back to life."

According to this report, the IS uploaded a post in Arabic to the image-sharing site JustPaste.it in which it aggressively warned Twitter: “your virtual war on us will cause a real war on you”. It continued: “You started this failed war… We told you from the beginning it’s not your war, but you didn’t get it and kept closing our accounts on Twitter, but we always come back. But when our lions come and take your breath, you will never come back to life.” It cannot be denied that the pro-IS online users, particularly on Twitter, have always defied the company’s blocking by opening their new accounts more quickly than they were deleted. In fact, the IS is now more actively engaged in an online onslaught on Twitter. It continues to tweet radical Islamism and violent jihadism promising a paradise for its supporters and sympathisers, and at the same time, threatening those who block their path of the ‘digital jihad’ with an atrocious death.

The author is a scholar of Comparative Religion, Classical Arabic and Islamic sciences, cultural analyst and researcher in Media and Communication Studies. Write to him at grdehlavi@gmail.com

First Published On : Aug 22, 2016 13:16 IST

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