Tech titans face quandary: Guard free speech or security
Before the carnage came the calls.
In Facebook posts during the last two years, leaders of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas called for attacks against Israelis. The acts that followed left four Americans dead: Army veteran Taylor Force was fatally stabbed; Yaakov Naftali Fraenkel, 16, was shot at point-blank range; Richard Lakin was shot and stabbed on a bus; and Chaya Zissel Braun, a 3-month-old, was hurled through the air when a car rammed into a crowd of people and her stroller while her mother watched, screaming.
Their family members — and another man who survived a stabbing — sued Facebook on July 10 in New York federal court for $1 billion, accusing the social media giant of providing material support to terrorist organizations by allowing the groups to use its platform.
It's the same crime Americans are criminally charged with if they join the Islamic State.
"They cannot sit in their ivory tower in Palo Alto when blood is spilled in the streets of Tel Aviv," said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, director of Shurat HaDin-Israel Law Center and a lawyer for the victims' families.
Facebook did not respond to Tribune-Review questions about the suit.
Darshan-Leitner's lawsuit is one of at least three — two of which were filed in Northern California — accusing social media companies of aiding terrorists. The potential consequences if the plaintiffs win — private companies trying to police the speech of billions of people — raise concerns for free speech advocates, technology experts and people involved in counterterrorism.
"In order for Facebook or Twitter or any social media platform to avoid providing this material assistance, they would have to engage in an incredibly expensive, resource-intensive and necessarily censoring filtering of content across their whole system," said David Thaw, a professor of law and information sciences at the University of Pittsburgh and a Yale Law School fellow.
Counterterrorism and law enforcement officials have struggled with extremists' use of social media. On one hand, terrorists have successfully used social media to recruit followers, entice Westerners to join the Islamic State and instigate violence. On the other hand, authorities have used social media to identify and track terrorists' activities to prevent attacks.
"There are hundreds of people in the United States who are consuming the propaganda of this so-called Islamic State and being motivated to move towards violence," FBI Director James Comey said Thursday during a hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee.
A 'virtual caliphate'
Not long after the Islamic State declared a caliphate in June 2014, its online supporters formed a loosely organized, self-proclaimed "virtual caliphate" that amplified the group's message around the world.
"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," lawyers for Tamara Fields — whose husband was killed in an ISIS-inspired attack in Amman, Jordan — wrote in a lawsuit filed against the microblogging site in a San Francisco federal court in January.
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.
The virtual caliphate — held together by social media — gains importance as Iraqi troops and coalition-backed fighters reclaim the physical ground held by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In editorials and speeches, Islamic State leaders have placed their hopes in this diaspora, saying that even if the group loses all of its territory, its followers will resurrect the caliphate.
They're not entirely wrong, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials.
The Islamic State's "ability to carry out terrorist attacks in Syria, Iraq and abroad has not been significantly diminished" by its loss of territory, Nicholas Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the House Homeland committee. That will eventually change, he said, but there isn't a "one-to-one" correlation between losing ground and losing reach.
Twitter and Facebook have deleted thousands of accounts linked to extremists. Twitter's lawyers argued in the Fields suit that Twitter isn't liable because it didn't generate any content supporting terrorists.
"These simple tools enable users to do everything from track the Arab Spring in real time, to argue with fellow Giants fans about whether to pull a struggling pitcher, to announce the birth of a child to family and friends," the lawyer wrote. "Each day, Twitter users send and receive hundreds of millions of tweets touching on every conceivable topic."
Including calls to violence.
A delicate balance
On March 15, a Twitter user with the handle @newerajihadi77 tweeted a photo of Islamic State terrorists decapitating two prisoners and a message for another Twitter user: "lol don't worry we r coming for you heathens," according to the FBI.
Federal agents tracked the account and several others Twitter had deleted to Haris Qamar, 25, of Burke, Va., according to court documents.
The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia charged Qamar with attempting to aid a terrorist organization after he and a confidential FBI source photographed Washington-area landmarks for what Qamar was led to believe was an ISIS propaganda video.
Qamar isn't alone. Of the 90 U.S. prosecutions of alleged and convicted Islamic State sympathizers, 53 are based, at least in part, on social media activity, a Trib analysis found.
The Home Front
Click on any state for the names and links to more information about people charged with aiding or attempting to aid the Islamic State.
Court filings show the FBI relies heavily on social media to identify, locate, befriend and prosecute people they accuse of being ISIS sympathizers, including Jalil Ibn Ameer Aziz, a Harrisburg man arrested last year who authorities say ran more than 50 Twitter accounts supporting the terrorist group.
"When I was chasing al-Qaida when I was in the CIA, I would've loved for al-Qaida to be using social media the way ISIS is," U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Calif., said during the House hearing. "If you were an American walking around the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan and said 'I want to join al-Qaida,' you would likely get your head cut off. Now we're able to target people from the comfort of our homes."
But there's a balance, said Orlandrew Danzell, a professor and researcher at Mercyhurst University's Tom Ridge School of Intelligence Studies and Information Science in Erie.
"The balance is between what benefit they offer the intelligence community and how much damage this propaganda can do," Danzell said.
For the families in the Facebook lawsuit, that balance is off, their lawyer, Darshan-Leitner, argued.
"Why do they agree to censor pornography, child molestation or pedophilia, and (not) incitements to violence?" she said.
The line between that kind of speech and legitimate political discussion isn't always clear, said Aaron Mackey, a legal fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.
"You can imagine a world where, if Facebook is treated like the publisher (liable for what its users post), they're going to screen everything first and have a team review everybody's posts before they ever go live," Mackey said.
Under those conditions, social media as most people know it would cease to function, he said.
"You just wouldn't have a platform with billions of users."