Social media firms walk fine line with jihadists
A Twitter posting from May showing nine severed heads resting on a blanket had 15 favorites and 19 retweets.
A YouTube video posted this month demonstrated how to behead someone: “You take the sword, you place the head like this, and then you enjoy yourself with it,” the instructor says.
Many other images show jihadists holding heads up as trophies or placed atop fences and stakes. One blog post featured two heads strapped to a pickup truck like hood ornaments.
The images are among more than 200 photos of beheadings collected from social media sites in recent months by the Middle East Media Research Institute, a Washington nonprofit. The institute culled them from the thousands of graphic postings by jihadists in Syria and northern Iraq, executive director Steven Stalinsky said.
He believes social media companies need to work harder to prevent the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — or Islamic State, for short — from spreading their message.
“You can't 100 percent remove all of the content, but you can make it difficult for them,” Stalinsky told the Tribune-Review. “At the heart of this is American social media companies. (Jihadists) have used (social media) very effectively for fundraising, for recruitment, for being able to quickly get out information. It has assisted them in ways they could never have thought of before.”
Twitter did not respond directly to requests for explanations of how the company decides on content. A spokesperson directed the Trib to Twitter's online policies for flagging and removing graphic material. Google, which owns YouTube, did not respond to repeated inquiries.
A review of Twitter and YouTube policies indicates they are subjective.
Twitter prohibits obscene or pornographic images and has said it will remove, at family members' request, images of anyone who has died. But it leans to the side of free speech: “Users are allowed to post content, including potentially inflammatory content,” it says.
In answering criticism about images showing the beheading of American journalist James Foley in Syria last week, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo tweeted: “We have been and are actively suspending accounts as we discover them related to this graphic imagery.”
The popular social media service was criticized for allowing graphic references and even a purported post-death photo of comedian Robin Williams, who hanged himself. But by week's end, disturbing images, purportedly showing Williams and Foley after death, still appeared on Twitter.
Google said videos posted to YouTube can be violent or graphic, but they must be presented with meaningful context.
“It's not okay to post violent or gory content that's primarily intended to be shocking, sensational or disrespectful,” it said. The company said it removed video images of Foley being killed.
Many images and videos mentioned in the institute's report have been blocked from social media, but jihadists keep finding ways to spread their messages.
Twitter suspended the account of a jihadist who showed graphic images, along with taunts about the United States bombing northern Iraq. He opened a new account on Wednesday and had 789 followers by Friday.
Jihadists also started using social media sites that are harder to block because they are not controlled by one entity in the United States. A program called Diaspora runs on networks of volunteer server operators around the world, meaning administrators cannot simply remove offensive content from one central place.
“This may be one of the reasons which attracted IS activists to our network,” the Diaspora team posted in an online blog.
Officials at most other social media sites, however, must subjectively decide what content to block or remove — and the decisions are not always easy, experts said.
Intelligence experts said they are divided about whether social media sites should attempt to prevent jihadists from posting opinionated rants and taunting messages.
Jihadists can use the sites to their advantage — but like many people, they inevitably end up sharing too much information, said Colin Clarke, who studies insurgents as a Rand Corp. researcher in Pittsburgh.
“They're putting out slickly produced social media marketing masterpieces,” Clarke said. “These things are carefully choreographed, and they're appealing. ... Madison Avenue would be jealous of a few of the things these guys have put out.”
Even the video of the Foley beheading offered clues about his executioner's English accent, eye color, height, stature and use of his left hand, said Thomas Sanderson, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington. British intelligence officials have been trying to identify the killer by his voice.
“This is not a win-win scenario for us to have them on Twitter,” Sanderson said. “They get to recruit, raise money, terrorize people and maintain a presence on social media, which lends some legitimacy. … But I do think on balance we learn a lot by seeing what they do.”
If the user is simply posting supportive messages about jihad, intelligence agencies can gain information by quietly monitoring them, said Michael Kenney, a terrorism expert at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.
But sites should disrupt the message when the “keyboard jihadists” cross into providing specific operational information about how to carry out an attack or posting violent images, he said.
“You've gone beyond just merely cheerleading about the Islamic State,” Kenney said. “Now you're actually posting the video which shows what is essentially a terrorist act. There you are actively facilitating the terrorist agenda.”
Andrew Conte is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7835 or firstname.lastname@example.org.