Twitter is home to celebrities, major corporations and even world leaders. Unfortunately, it’s also used by bad guys, like terrorists.
Last month, al-Shabaab live-tweeting its siege on the Westgate mall in Kenya that left at least 72 people dead. The account was recently shut down by Twitter, but not before gaining more than 5,500 followers.
As it races towards its much-hyped initial public offering, the presence of terrorists poses a vexing problem for Twitter, which must balance the interests of users, shareholders, advertisers and even global spy agencies.
“There are many stories of Twitter being used by groups for noble purposes, but it can also be used for evil purposes. You want to be careful you don’t become known as a place for dangerous people to gather supporters,” said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University.
Even if Twitter wanted to remove the account of a known terror group or an individual terrorist, the government could pressure it not to.
A person familiar with the matter told FOX Business that law-enforcement groups have been known to ask social media platforms not to delete accounts because of the potential to glean valuable intel.
American intelligence officials don’t dispute that point.
“U.S. counterterrorism experts follow the public messaging of terrorist organizations in part because it can offer clues about how they recruit and the strategic goals of these groups,” a U.S. counterterrorism official told FOX Business.
In the seven years since launching, San Francisco-based Twitter has revolutionized online communication and become a powerful tool for people and brands to get their messages out to millions of followers.
That power hasn’t been lost on terrorist groups. Al-Shabaab, a Somali-based affiliate of al-Qaeda, has used Twitter to send out real-time messages, images and taunts about terror attacks, including the Westgate attack.
“The incoherent ramblings of Kenyan officials and the blatant discrepancies with regards to the Mujahideen at #Westgate betrays their fears,” the group’s “press office” said on a Twitter account on September 24 during the siege, according to SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist websites.
Twitter did act to try to squash al-Shabaab’s messaging apparatus, shutting down about six different accounts, according to SITE.
“Twitter and the other social networks are in a really difficult spot. They don’t want to play the role of a censor or a screener. But by the same token they sort of have to,” Calkins said.
Al-Qaeda recently launched its first official Twitter account, which was shut down soon thereafter.
Terrorists' Evolving Communications Strategy
While terrorists have long had an online presence, their venue of choice had been jihadi forums. But in some countries, these forums may be blocked and invite scrutiny upon visitors.
On the other hand, a presence on Twitter allows them to capitalize on heightened media attention after high-profile attacks, direct followers and lure in potential recruits. Terrorists have been using Twitter since 2010, but never to the extent that al-Shabaab has until recently.
“Twitter can be visited without raising suspicion, is almost always online, and it is easy to make and promote new accounts,” Rita Katz, executive director of SITE, wrote in a recent report. “With little effort, jihadi groups and officials can directly share their positions -- on their own terms and in their own words -- to shape media coverage of their actions.”
To be sure, Twitter is hardly alone in appealing to evil forces.
“Nobody is doing a perfect job on this, but Twitter is much less aggressive about this than just about anybody else. Facebook and YouTube have a much more concerted effort to at least control this,” said J.M. Berger, an author and terror analyst.
How Accounts Get Suspended
But the spotlight is shining bright on Twitter as the microblogging company gears up to go public. Last week, Twitter unveiled IPO documents, setting the stage for the highest-profile debut since Mark Zuckerberg’s company almost 18 months ago.
Twitter said it doesn’t comment on “individual Twitter accounts, for security and privacy reasons.”
“We don’t actively monitor content on Twitter -- it’s impossible for a platform with more than 200 million active users sending 500 million tweets a day, in 35 different languages,” a company spokesperson said. “But we do evaluate reports of abuse and suspend accounts if they violate the Twitter Rules."
According to Twitter’s website, users are prohibited from publishing or posting “direct, specific threats of violence against others.”
Violent messages are seemingly at the heart of what a terrorist group’s Twitter feed would feature.
Twitter also said users are not allowed to use the service “for any unlawful purposes or in furtherance of illegal activities. International users agree to comply with all local laws regarding online conduct and acceptable content.”
It’s also worth pointing out it’s often hard to verify which Twitter accounts claiming to represent terrorist groups are legitimate.
From a legal perspective, Twitter is unlikely to be held accountable for messages posted by terrorists or other nefarious groups.
“I think it’s pretty clear Twitter is under no obligation to do anything about these posts,” said Joseph Sanscrainte, a lawyer with experience in privacy and marketing issues. "That would have a chilling effect on the Internet as a whole and cut back on the ability of service providers to provide services."
Ethically, the matter is far less cut and dry for Twitter and other social-media companies.
"I don’t think we should give them free run of Twitter or any other service.”
- terror analyst J.M. Berger
Sanscrainte notes that while one side believes “uncivilized barbarians” shouldn’t be given access to “tools used by the civilized world,” others believe allowing terrorists to post messages “serves only to expose the underlying stupidity of their philosophy.”
Berger said he doesn't want Twitter to ban all terror accounts, but urged the company to be more aggressive.
“I think certain kinds of accounts, particularly the ones that have tens or hundreds of thousands of followers, should be pruned every once in a while,” he said. “I don’t think we should give them free run of Twitter or any other service.”
“We’re seeing much more pressure on corporations to act responsibly in the offline and the online world. If I want to appeal advertisers, then obviously I need to offend the least number of people possible,” said Jonathan Armstrong a partner at Duane Morris.
In its S-1 filing last week, Twitter reported generating 87% of its revenue in the first half of 2013 from advertising.
Given these concerns, it seems likely Twitter will need to continue to address these questions as it grows into a public company.
“This is almost like teenage growing pains for Twitter. Most social media sites experience this,” said Armstrong. “They will need to be more mature in the way they approach compliance.”