Hushing Twitter: The Danger of Double Standards

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Lebanon's Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah is seen on broadcat screens at al-Manar TV in Beirut. (Photo: AFP - Anwar Amro)

By: Jillian C. York

Published Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Twitter has been hit recently by a spate of calls demanding the company remove accounts belonging to “terrorist organizations.” Though a letter sent in late December to Twitter by Israeli law firm Shurat HaDin has received the lion’s share of press attention, US Senator Joseph Lieberman issued a call nearly a month earlier for Twitter to ban the Taliban from using their service, and a New York Times article quotes an unnamed source as saying the government is “exploring legal options to shut down the Shabab’s new Twitter account.”

In some cases, those accounts – such as Hezbollah’s @almanarnews and Hamas’s @alqassambrigade and @hamasinfo, belong to groups deemed foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) by the US government, while others – namely, several belonging to the Taliban – are not subject to laws criminalizing dealings with FTOs.

Those laws, known colloquially as “material support” laws and criticized by a number of organizations as violating the right to free speech, prevent US citizens from providing certain types of support and training to FTOs and could possibly be used by the Department of Justice in an attempt to force Twitter’s hand — though it’s difficult to see what purpose that would serve. Just as keeping communications open during recent riots in London and Vancouver gave police the upper hand in identifying illegal actions, keeping open the communications of those deemed “terrorist organizations” could ultimately help law enforcement agencies.

Incidentally, the Kenyan military – Al-Shabaab’s greatest adversary – agrees: As Major Emmanuel Chirchir recently stated in a tweet, “Al Shabaab needs to be engaged positively and twitter [sic] is the only avenue.”

Perhaps more than any other social media company, Twitter has been forthright about their dedication to free speech, resisting interference in user spats and standing up to governments. In 2011, the company famously challenged an order from the Department of Justice to hand over information on users suspected of involvement in WikiLeaks. CEO Dick Costolo has even gone as far as referring to the company as “the free speech wing of the free speech party.”

No new phenomenon

Despite what the sudden stream of media interest might imply, the use of social networks by militant or resistance movements is not new, nor is the issue limited to Twitter. In 2008, reports claimed that the Israeli Army had expressed concerns that Hezbollah was using Facebook to infiltrate their ranks, while last May, the non-profit Investigative Project on Terrorism reported on Hamas’s extensive presence on social networks Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube.

In fact, a quick search through the aforementioned platforms shows accounts belonging to the same organizations that utilize Twitter. Al-Manar’s Facebook page has around 2,500 friends, while Hamas’s YouTube page – created in November 2010 – has garnered more than 10,000 views. And yet, neither platform has received remotely the same level of attention as Twitter for hosting the groups’ content.

So are these demands to shut down media outlets in the face of rival groups – particularly those from members of government – unprecedented? Though this appears to be the first time US government representatives have called out social networks, an earlier initiative unveils a dangerous pattern.

In 2009, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution naming three Arab television stations – Al-Manar, Al-Aqsa, and Al-Rafidayn – as “terrorist owned and operated” and stating that any satellite provider that knowingly contracts with FTOs to broadcast their channels be deemed a terrorist organization itself under Executive Order 13224. The bill – which never came up for a vote in the Senate – would have effectively forced satellite providers in the Middle East and North Africa to choose between adhering to the law and blocking the channels or allowing them to remain, risking their own funding as well as their reputations.

More insidious is the fact that, had the satellite providers cooperated, these groups – some of which are legitimate participants in their local governments – would have been silenced not just for Americans, but for their intended local audiences as well. The same is true for Twitter; while forcing the accounts off the platform might prevent Americans from reading what is labeled terrorist propaganda, it would also prevent dialogue between local parties, as the Kenyan military has pointed out.

The best response to speech...is more speech

There is an old saying, often repeated, that the best remedy against ‘bad’ speech – a designation often made in the eye of the beholder – is more speech. An incident that speaks strongly in favor of this approach occurred in 2011, when a Facebook group calling for a third intifada in Palestine was targeted by various parties, including the same Israeli law firm now targeting Twitter. At the time, the group contained no threats of violence, and even Facebook deemed it acceptable under their proprietary terms of service, but the calls quickly amplified. Though Facebook claims they did not remove the page in response to the threats, the company eventually capitulated, claiming the page contained speech in violation of their terms of service.

While a private company like Facebook – for better or worse – does have the right to remove speech they deem inappropriate, their actions resulted in almost the opposite effect as intended: Calls for a third intifada on the platform multiplied, with as many as fifty groups cropping up in the immediate aftermath. Today, more than a dozen such groups exist, with nearly 100,000 aggregate fans.

This phenomenon, known as the Streisand Effect, serves as a strong argument against content takedowns. Just as The New York Times’ report on Al-Shabaab’s use of Twitter upped their follower count on the site, forcing the speech of other organizations underground would have a similar effect. Allowing the speech to remain free in the marketplace of ideas is, though it might seem contradictory, less likely to amplify it.

Furthermore, if the US government considers the tweets an issue of “national security,” it would be better off monitoring rather than censoring them. Not to mention the fact that censoring on such a basis would place the US among the ranks of countries like Bahrain and Uzbekistan.

At a time when other companies seem unfazed by censoring protected speech, Twitter stands out – but 2012 is sure to pose challenges to the platform, as the case against WikiLeaks moves forward and media reports of terrorist organizations using the social network proliferate.

Given Twitter’s track record on free expression, it seems unlikely that the company will cow to the threats made by Lieberman and Shurat HaDin. Ultimately, then, it is a matter of whether the Executive branch of the US government will find a legal way to shut down these accounts, as they’ve stated is their desire. For the sake of free expression, let’s hope they don’t.

Jillian C. York is Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and is on the board of Global Voices.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.

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