The gruesome murder of American journalist James Foley yesterday was an opportunity for the self-styled Islamic State (IS) to put on a propaganda show. The jihadi group uploaded video of the killing to YouTube and Vimeo and its social media team bombarded Twitter – including targeting journalists and others who closely follow the war in Syria and Iraq – with the links.
Within minutes YouTube deleted the original post and Twitter was not far behind, announcing it would suspend accounts spreading the distressing video. But by that time the clip had multiplied. Users posted slightly different versions to evade detection – YouTube has an algorithm that prevents re-uploads. By Tuesday evening, dozens of copies of the footage could be found with just a simple web search.
As social media sites fought to shut them down, the online followers of IS reveled in the butchery of a hostage and called for more, part of the point of the exercise for the group. Social media has become an important fund-raising and recruitment tool for them. While to most people the murder was nihilistic and repugnant, for would-be internet mujahideen it was a moment of celebration.
The online tussle since Mr. Foley's death highlights an ethical dilemma. As IS captured swathes of Iraqi territory in June and eastern Syria over the last month, they also made gains online. In addition to opening dozens of official accounts and media outlets, the militants have spawned a universe of ‘fan boy’ Twitter feeds re-posting their statements and praising their cause.
What can and should be done about extremist group accounts? Left unchecked, their feeds spread a violent message and rally support. But closing down all the feeds is a nearly impossible, even futile chore. And if successful it would also deprive those who seek to track and counter such groups of important data points.
Foley’s murder is an extreme example. But other IS releases have helped analysts track key militant operations, analyze troop movements, and tally foreign recruits.
“There’s always this tension,” says Matthew Levitt, former deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the US Treasury Department. “You don’t want to shut them down, because they offer a treasure trove of information … but you also want to start sending a message [to extremists] that we know what you’re doing.”
There are also questions of censorship, with some arguing that the answer to savagery is sunlight, not darkness, and worries about regulatory overreach that could severely curtail free speech. For instance the United Kingdom's Metropolitan Police said today that "viewing, downloading or disseminating" the Foley murder video, which was carried out by a man with a British accent, may be treated as a terrorism offense. That could in theory leave many of the journalists, analysts, friends of Foley, and the merely curious, at risk of lengthy jail terms.
Social media for jihad
The social media war escalated over the summer, as IS consolidated its media wing.
“Last year, there were no official newsfeeds, just people advertising either on forums or on Facebook,” says Aymenn J Al Tamimi, who closely follows jihadi social media as the Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum. “Now, it’s a centralized media operation,” he says. “All their accounts follow each other; there is coordination.”
The first official IS accounts were on Twitter, which has blocked dozens of streams since July. Twitter spokesman Nu Wexler writes that users are banned if they violate rules that “prohibit ‘unlawful use’ and ‘direct, specific threats of violence against others.’ ” He did not respond to questions about whether the United States had requested the closures.
YouTube, meanwhile, has a policy of shutting down accounts linked to any individuals or groups designated by the US State Department as terrorists. A spokesperson declined to comment, pointing to the site's community guidelines for fair use.
Another site adopted by militants says it has been in touch with European authorities on how to limit content. JustPaste.it, which allows users to share text and photos without opening an account has seen a surge in IS activity, particularly as Twitter began to close accounts.
“Currently, I'm monitoring all the most popular notes and deleted all content that is illegal due to Europe Union law,” the site’s owner, Mariusz Żurawek, says. “Also, I'm cooperating with (the police) to track terrorist activity on the page.”
JustPasteIt recently deleted a slew of graphic IS postings. But keeping up with the flow of material from new users is a gargantuan task. “Due to the high volume of traffic – I have to monitor the site almost all the time,” Mr. Żurawek says.
“Technically speaking, it is very hard to shut down all the accounts and prevent them from popping up tomorrow,” says Mr. Levitt, who currently heads The Washington Institute's counterterrorism and intelligence program.
One example is the case of Hajjaj al Ajmi, a Kuwaiti cleric designated by the US Treasury as a sponsor of terrorism on Aug. 7 for his work funding Al Qaeda’s Syrian rebel affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra.
Almost immediately, Mr. Ajmi’s once prolific Twitter feed was blocked. Gone were the photos of him praying in the Syrian countryside, the banners calling for donors to fund the jihad.
But left unblocked on Twitter was Ajmi’s organization, the so-called People’s Commission for the Support of the Syrian Revolution, which continues to operate on Twitter and has worn the blocking of its leader as a badge of honor. The charity “continues to support the oppressed," the account wrote in Arabic on Aug. 7, the day Ajmi was listed, brandishing posters of his latest fundraiser.
Ajmi’s account also offers a prime example of why some counter terrorism officials oppose shutting down known accounts.
Before it was blocked, his @HajjajAlAjmi feed provided perhaps the most accessible picture of the network of private Gulf-based donors to the Syrian opposition. He interacted with fellow fundraisers, including a representative in Qatar, indicated which operations and groups he was providing money for, and provided Human Rights Watch with details that helped document a massacre of Allawites on the Syrian coast in 2013. Early in the Syrian conflict Ajmi even posted bank account numbers – a gift to those trying to track terror financing.
In IS’s case, Mr. Al-Tamimi says the accounts helped him follow their activity in smaller towns with almost no conventional news reporting.
“In Iraq’s Anbar province, it helped to analyze: which group is leading the offensive in this area?” He and other analysts were able to map out everything from the tempo of IS operations to its casualties per operation.
“Having these feeds is useful,” he says, “Though... I can understand the concern given how this group has grown. Maybe analysts shouldn’t be too selfish.”
Blacking out the black flag
Since Foley's murder, a debate over violent movements' use of social media that had been confined to activists and academics, has gone public. Shortly after the video was released, Twitter users started #ISISMediaBlackout, urging Twitter users not to repost links or photos of his murder. Newspapers that ran stills from the video were lobbied to change the practice and some, like The Guardian, agreed.
Mr. Żurawek of JustPasteIt said even before the video he was facing “pressure from British, German, and Polish press to delete all content connected with ISIS."
IS may be deciding that at least some platforms aren’t worth the trouble. Since being knocked off Twitter, IS has moved its regional spokesman accounts to a little-known platform called Diaspora, which relies on decentralized servers, or pods, to host content.
Diaspora did not respond to a request for comment about the accounts, and several of the feeds appeared to have been closed after the Monitor sent a request to the company including links pointing them out.