Clinton wants to get Islamic State off Twitter. Is it smart, or even possible?

Hillary Clinton said IS should be cut off from Twitter, but FBI director James Comey has argued this may not be the best plan, and is definitely not the easiest.

Brian Snyder/Reuters
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign stop at Beech Hill Farm in Hopkinton, New Hampshire on Tuesday.

Hillary Clinton wants to cut the Islamic State (IS) group off from what has proven to be one of the organization’s most powerful recruiting tools: social media.

At a campaign event in New Hampshire Tuesday, Mrs. Clinton said getting IS off the Internet was vital. The terror group recruits internationally primarily by using social media to establish contact with potential recruits, before continuing conversations on encrypted forums outside of public view, FBI director James Comey said earlier this month.

“We have got to shut down their Internet presence, which is posing the principal threat to us,” Clinton said.

IS has successfully lured “dozens” of American adults to the Middle East so far, Mr. Comey told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer last week. But however urgent the situation may be, blocking IS from Twitter is easier said than done.

A Brookings Institution study released in March estimated that in 2014 between the months of September and December, more than 46,000 Twitter accounts supporting IS were active at some point. And though Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iraq were the most common origins of these accounts, almost a fifth used the English language.

One way to pull the plug on IS accounts would be for the CIA or the NSA to block Twitter from being accessed in locations where IS is strong, like Syria and northern Iraq, The Wall Street Journal reported. The problem is that this would let IS supporters in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and France fly under the radar.

Twitter itself has been actively shutting down accounts that violate its terms of service, which ban “direct, specific threats of violence against others,” but IS supporters can easily open a new account when one is deactivated.

Twitter’s actions against IS have also prompted violent threats from the terror group, the Guardian reported. In a post uploaded to the site earlier this year, someone claiming to speak for IS wrote to the company, “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.”

This threat did not deter Twitter executives from shutting down accounts; rather, it made real for them the seriousness of the situation, Comey told the Huffington Post. "Our experience is that Twitter has been very cooperative, and that cooperation has grown – I say only half facetiously – after ISIL threatened to kill their CEO, after they saw some of the darkness I see," Comey said. "They don't want people using Twitter to engage in criminal activity, especially terrorism."

In spite of some of these efforts, Comey said he was not sure removing IS from Twitter was a desirable outcome at all. The public nature of Twitter and the ability of law enforcement to access direct messages through the legal process means as long as IS is on Twitter, counterterrorism officials have a way to monitor it.

“You’ve got to look carefully at terrorist groups and criminal cartels and other illegal actors to figure out whether they can use the Internet to cause crimes, to cause harm, to wage terrorist attacks,” Clinton said, “and we can’t just let that go on unabated.”

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