Opinion Columns & Blogs

Censoring Islamic State on Twitter Is useless

When a powerful denial-of-service attack brought down Sony’s PlayStation Network recently, a group that claimed responsibility said it had acted on behalf of the Islamic State, the rapidly growing terrorist organization in the Middle East.

“Kuffar don’t get to play videogames until bombing of the ISIL stops,” the account @LizardSquad tweeted out, using a derogatory Arabic term for “unbelievers.”

That’s what you’d expect from an organization running perhaps the most successful international recruitment campaign in terrorism history. According to a recent Soufan Group report, more than 12,000 foreign fighters, 3,000 of them from Western countries, have joined the war in Syria since the three-year conflict began.

Social networks are a powerful tool for luring these people into the organization. Terrorist groups have always used YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and other platforms to draw young people into their ideological orbit.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are the executions, which arguably have a more powerful recruiting appeal to radicalized Muslim youths.

Islamic State even developed an app, called the Dawn of Glad Tidings, that automatically retweeted the organization’s posts through the accounts of those who downloaded it. Twitter has been cracking down of Islamic State accounts lately, so they’ve moved to other networks, such as the decentralized Diaspora, where users fully control the content.

I am not bothered with the way Islamic State uses social tools. Whether we want it or not, many of these fighters are Millennials, part of a generation that grew up networked. What does bother me are the misguided attempts to censor the terrorist group out of existence.

What is the point of making it harder for Islamic State to distribute its heinous materials (and its kitten pictures, too)? It makes a travesty of the freedom of expression and it does no damage to the group’s recruitment efforts.

Islamic State’s frantic social activity on the Internet doesn’t call for censorship, but rather for the use of the National Security Agency’s giant snooping potential. People who post selfies with Kalashnikovs from IS-controlled areas are probably terrorists, and their social network connections should be explored, not disrupted.

People who retweet videos of beheadings with approving comments may also be of interest to terrorism fighters. The unchecked spread of information is an opportunity, not a threat.