Why Twitter is cracking down on terrorist tweets

Twitter says that it's struggling to achieve balance between bearing responsibility and avoiding becoming the arbiter of free speech.

Dado Ruvic/Reuters
The Islamic State hashtag (#ISIS) is seen typed into the Twitter application on a smartphone in this picture illustration taken in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Twitter Inc has shut down more than 125,000 terrorism-related accounts since the middle of 2015, most of them linked to the Islamic State group, the company said in a blog post on Friday.

Terrorist groups may now have a harder time using Twitter as a platform for radical activities.

For years, terrorists groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al Qaeda have used social media sites including Twitter and Facebook, to spread extremist messages, recruit followers, and call on sympathizers in the West to commit acts of violence at home.

A study by the Brookings Institution estimated that from September through December 2014, at least 46,000 Twitter accounts were used by ISIS supporters, though not all were active at the same time.

But Twitter is now vowing to crack down on such radical messages. The company announced Friday that it had suspended 125,000 Twitter accounts associated with extremism since the middle of 2015, making it the first time it has publicized the number of accounts it has suspended, according to New York Times.

"Like most people around the world, we are horrified by the atrocities perpetrated by extremist groups,” the company said in a blog post. “We condemn the use of Twitter to promote terrorism and the Twitter Rules make it clear that this type of behavior, or any violent threat, is not permitted on our service”

The announcement came following increased pressure by the White House as well as the French, Australian and British governments urging social media companies to have more proactive responses to radical groups using their sites. Last month, the US government dispatched top national security officials to Silicon Valley to seek the tech industry's help in countering violent extremism online.

Last month, the Florida widow of a military contractor killed in a terrorist attack in Amman sued Twitter, saying that the network "knowingly permitted the terrorist group ISIS to use its social network as a tool for spreading extremist propaganda, raising funds and attracting new recruits," the Washington Post reported.

In releasing the statement, the company said that it has been struggling with finding a path between bearing responsibility for their platforms and avoiding becoming the arbiter of what constitutes free speech.

“As an open platform for expression, we have always sought to strike a balance between the enforcement of our own Twitter Rules covering prohibited behaviors, the legitimate needs of law enforcement, and the ability of users to share their views freely – including views that some people may disagree with or find offensive.”

Although Friday's announcement was widely celebrated by officials combating online extremism, it has it limits. For one, the intelligence community is divided on the issue of cracking down these accounts.

“On the one hand, jihadists use them as recruitment tools, but ISIS postings also help track these militants and teach us about their activities when intelligence on the ground is limited,” a source told CBSNEWS.

Also, some experts are skeptical and say that when these accounts are suspended, new ones tend to pop up. How then, will Twitter manage to monitor new accounts that use fake names?

“Our efforts have not stopped there. We have increased the size of the teams that review reports, reducing our response time significantly. We also look into other accounts similar to those reported and leverage proprietary spam-fighting tools to surface other potentially violating accounts for review by our agents. We have already seen results, including an increase in account suspensions and this type of activity shifting off of Twitter,” the company said.

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