The Islamic State is Tweeting – How Public Officials and Twitter Can Respond

by Bonnie Bethea

In 2014, supporters of the Islamic State (ISIS) used at least 46,000 accounts from the popular social media platform Twitter (Nicholas & Paletta, 2015). ISIS is using Twitter in order to spread the word of their organization and recruit fighters to join their foreign army. The active presence of ISIS on Twitter has generated numerous ethical questions on how to regulate. In response to the presence of the Islamic State on Twitter, US public officials and Twitter should adopt a regulatory framework that combines self-regulation with command and control, because such an outcome would maintain that government does not become too focused on preemptive security and therefore, infringe on individual rights.

Self-regulation mandates the compliance of individual firms in order to reach a certain outcome. It is attractive because it is not compulsory and therefore, does not typically require enforcement mechanisms. Instead, firms obtain such an outcome through information, education, technology sharing, commitment from their participants, and peer group pressure. Nevertheless, pure self-regulation has its weaknesses: often firms who want to self-regulate are met with the reality that they do not have the capabilities to do so on their own (Sinclair, 1997). This imperfection in self-regulation is evident in the case of the ISIS presence on Twitter. For example, Islamic State militants have used Twitter to recruit new members by following individuals they believe would join ISIS. The militants then send these people private direct messages over Twitter to redirect the conversation to another platform. The platforms ISIS typically will use then consists of encrypted social media applications. In response, Twitter has tried multiple times to identify and suspend Islamic State militants from using their network as a platform. However, every time Twitter has blocked a person, they quickly sign up for a new Twitter account under a different name (Mazzetti & Gordon, 2015). In other words, ISIS recruitment mechanisms are too fast for Twitter to keep up with.

The alternative to self-regulation is command and control regulation. Command and control regulation is a government intervention by which government commands a firm or group to meet specific standards and controls the firm through the threat of negative sanctions. Command and control regulation is conceptualized by the theory of deterrence, by which compliance is the severity of the penalty and the probability of an offender to be punished. Command and control regulation assumes that the relevant actors are rational and will therefore comply. In this case, Twitter has already agreed to comply, even in the absence of a policy mandating them to do so. Nevertheless, command and control regulation is an ineffective means to achieve an outcome, because national public agencies and officials responsible with implementing command and control regulation often have limited resources which prevent them from adequately detecting offenders (Tietenberg, 1992). In the case of the Islamic State’s Twitter presence, the biggest hurdle for US intelligence services is the fact that ISIS is a global threat by which the digital world knows no borders. It is possible to block Twitter all together, the national governments of China, Iran, and North Korea have already done so (The Economist, 2015). However, US public officials are arguing for the more difficult but less radical solution of blocking some individual IP addresses from Twitter. The National Security Agency (NSA) or the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)  may find a way to jam or block the Islamic State from using Twitter in Iraq, Syria, or parts of Libya. However, it is extremely difficult to impossible to block ISIS’s access to Twitter in more technologically advanced countries such as the US, France, or the United Kingdom without blocking Twitter all together (Golan, 2015). The other issue at stake is that European countries have their own national agencies and the right to decide how to handle the Islamic State’s Twitter usage. Consequently, US intelligence agencies are rather limited in the extent to which they can actually block the Islamic State from Twitter.

The question of to regulate or not to regulate comes back to the ability of firms or public agencies to achieve their outcome. Twitter is unable to keep Islamic State militants off of Twitter and US agencies and public officials are unable to block ISIS militants from using IP addresses from around the world. Assuming the desired outcome is to demolish the threat posed by the Islamic State, the best policy outcome would consist of a combination of self-regulation and command and control, asit would enable firms to willingly commit to work with national governments, all while limiting the dangers of a too powerful state.

Before creating a regulatory framework that combines self-regulation with command and control, there are a couple ethical issues that need to be considered. First, it must be questioned if Twitter’s blocking of Islamic State militants’ accounts is a violation of the freedom of speech. Under US constitutional law, speech that presents a clear and present danger is punishable and therefore, not included in freedom of speech. However, the question of what is a clear and present danger is highly debatable. For example, there is a difference between using Twitter to tweet an idea of the Islamic State or sympathizing with them, and using Twitter to collect foreign fighters to join ISIS in order to commit international crimes. Arguably, the first does not present a clear and present danger but the ladder does. Consequently, potential policy options should protect freedom of speech while still providing national security. Another ethical question returns to the highly polarized  privacy versus security debate: US Federal Investigators have used Twitter to extract GPS coordinates. Such data is extremely useful to investigators because it can provide them with the exact location of Islamic State territories, militants, and potential fighters (Berger & Morgan, 2015). Theoretically, investigators can then use this data to prevent terrorist attacks. The ethical issue at hand is that in response to the Islamic State, the US has pushed the pendulum further away from the right to privacy (Solove, 2011). It should be questioned if it is ethical to track the private location of potential fighters before they have even joined the Islamic State. All the same, if internet users know that using the internet decreases their privacy, then theoretically, tracking them is not a complete violation of their privacy. In this case, the most ethical solution would provide that Twitter users are fully aware of who can obtain, process, analyze, and store their data (Nissenbaum, 2004).

Taking all of these ethical issues into consideration, the best option for Twitter would be  to utilize its own right to freedom of speech by launching a Twitter page against the Islamic State. This page could make frequent tweets asking its users to refrain from using Twitter to incite violence. In addition, they could ask users to report suspicious activities. Twitter could even warn users that data implying suspicious activity will be extracted, investigated, and stored by the US government. By doing so, the firm would display to its users that it respects its users right to privacy by informing them of their rights, but that they also care about its users public safety. This outcome could be achieved by US officials mandating that Twitter hand over suspicious activity that they believe may be linked to the Islamic State. It is assumed that Twitter would comply with this mandate. Nevertheless, the US needs to exercise caution in the data it chooses to investigate and store: If the data is coming from an IP address outside the US, than the US should hand over that intelligence to the national government in which it belongs. That is, unless the US has permission to process, analyze, and store the foreign data in question. As it stands, the US already has the technological capabilities to do so. The State Department already agreed to expand its Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. The center, established in 2011, hires experts fluent in Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi and Somali in order to find ISIS propaganda and counter it with competing ideas (Mazzetti, & Gordon, 2015). All the same, US public officials need to consider that the US does not always have the best reputation with foreign policy. It could be more effective if the alternative ideology to the Islamic State came from the tweets of celebrities and popular companies because they could reach a broader spectrum of people and are further detached from US foreign policy. Therefore, the US could encourage Twitter to launch a campaign informing its users of their rights. US public officials could help Twitter in this process by agreeing to subsidize the campaign as well as advertizing it on the Twitter accounts of US public officials and public offices. This is an innovative option because it generates an outcome through both self-regulation and command and control regulatory frameworks.

The 2016 Presidential election presents the perfect time to outline what direction US foreign policy will take. Historically, the question has been to regulate or not to regulate. Today, the problems have expanded but so have the ideas. The US can loosen its tight grip and work with companies, such as Twitter, in order to generate collaborative outcomes.

About the Author

Bonnie Bethea is currently a Master in Public Policy (MPP) Candidate at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy at the University of Erfurt. Bethea’s research,writing, and academic interests include Eastern European politics, regulatory affairs, and Transatlantism.

Bibliography

A peaceful explosion. (2015, May 27). The Economist. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/blogs/erasmus/2015/05/religion-twitter-and-freedom
Berger, J. & Morgan, J. (2015). The ISIS Twitter Census finding and describing the population of ISIS supporters on Twitter. The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World. The Brookings Institute. Retrieved from http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2015/03/isis-twitter-census-berger-morgan
Golan, G. (2015). Can the U.S. Counter ISIS on Social Media?  The Huffington Post Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/guy-golan/can-the-us-counter-isis-o_b_7912020.html
Mazzetti, M., & Gordon, M. (2015, June 12). ISIS Is Winning the Social Media War, U.S. Concludes. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/13/world/middleeast/isis-is-winning-message-war-us-concludes.html?_r=0
Nicholas, P., & Paletta, D. (2015). Hillary Clinton Wants Islamic State Off Twitter. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2015/07/28/hillary-clinton-wants-islamic-state-off-twitter/
Nissenbaum, H. (2004). Privacy as Contextual Integrity. Washington Law Review Association. Print.
Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919).
Sinclair, D. (1997). Self Regulation Versus Command and Control? Beyond False Dichotomies. Law & Policy, Vol. 19. No. 4. Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
Solove, D. (2011). Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff between Privacy and Security. Yale University Press. Print.
Tietenberg, T.H. (ed.) (1992). Innovation in Environmental Policy: Economic and Legal Aspects of Recent Developments in Environmental Enforcement and Liability. Aldershot, Hants.: E. Edgar.

Picture credit: Karl Ludwig Poggemann under a Attribution 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license (CC-BY 2.0)

This article was written for a course titled: New Forms of Regulations, taught at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy.

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