Monday, February 08, 2016

Twitter and Terrorism

On Feb. 5, the short-message-service Internet firm Twitter announced that since the middle of 2015, it has suspended 125,000 accounts because they appeared to be promoting terrorism or similar extremist activities.  While Twitter has long maintained rules against such content in tweets, this is the first time they have made public a specific number of account suspensions connected with terrorism.  This move and the associated problem Twitter is trying to deal with bring up important questions about the ethics of communications technologies and the way private organizations have displaced national laws as arbiters of free speech.

Historically, communications systems rarely arise in discussions of engineering ethics.  For example, I doubt that in the 1950s the Society of Motion Picture Engineers debated the question of screenwriters who were blacklisted during the McCarthy communism-scare era.  The question of a medium's content was seen to be almost totally distinct from the technology and engineering it used. 

But gradually that has changed as technical, managerial, and censorship roles have morphed and merged in the strange new cyberspace world of spam, viruses, and tweets.  The problem Twitter faces, of groups such as ISIS using Internet services to promote and coordinate terrorist activities, is real.  Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik apparently drew much of their inspiration for the attack in San Bernadino, California from Internet sites promoting jihad.   Their December 2015 attack killed fourteen and wounded twenty-two.  Even messages limited to 140 characters can be used to recruit and coordinate such things, although there is no evidence that Twitter was involved in that particular incident.

Nevertheless, Twitter, with only 3,900 employees, faces the daunting task of enforcing its Twitter Rules on all 300-some million active users every day.  Clearly, much of this task involves technology to sift through the millions of messages pouring through Twitter's servers.  It also involves the cooperation of groups concerned about terrorism, with which Twitter has teamed in an effort to find and suspend violators of Twitter's rule against promotion of terrorism.  But it also involves fundamental questions of free speech—questions that used to be debated mainly in the halls of legislatures and courts of law, not in the cubicles of software engineers.  Increasingly, it's the engineers—or people who work closely with them—making the on-the-ground decisions about who gets to tweet and who gets their beaks clamped shut.

The fact that Twitter has gone public with a specific number of account closures is a move apparently designed to send a message to those who would use the service for nefarious purposes.  It also serves to raise the status of the company in the eyes of those who are worried about misuse of the Internet for terrorist activities.  And it emphasizes the magnitude of the problem.  Suspending accounts can be compared to a medical test for a serious ailment.  If you get too many false positives, you'll be bothering healthy people with a diagnosis that later has to be reversed.  But if you get too many false negatives, you let people with a serious disease slip through without treatment, possibly leading to worse results later on.  So the challenge for Twitter is to find accounts that are being used to promote terrorism in some way and suspend only those, without cutting off people who are not trying to make trouble.

From a free-speech point of view, these suspensions could be viewed as censorship.  But even the courts recognize that free speech has limits—the classical example being the lack of a right to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater.  So Twitter's actions are justifiable on that basis in cases where the possible harm to others in the form of terrorist activity appears to outweigh the value of preserving free speech for all Twitter account holders. 

This is not a critique of Twitter, by any means.  They appear to be taking responsibility for a hard job and doing it as well as they can.  Looming in the background, of course, is the possibility that if a family of someone killed in a terrorist attack discovers that Twitter accounts were involved in planning the attack, the firm might get sued.  While I'm not aware of any such suits, such possibilities always have to be considered when you are dealing with a large-scale operation involving millions of people. 

But I think the most notable thing about this situation is the way that the practical basis of free speech, in this case anyway, has spread from the legal system to international private firms where the parties are mostly anonymous users, largely invisible software engineers, and company policy makers, in cooperation with various outside agencies who are all selected by Twitter.  The legal system hasn't entirely lost its influence, in that companies such as Twitter are still responsive to sustained large-scale legal challenges.  But in the wild-West environment of the Internet, such challenges are unusual and often politically inspired.  Preventing terrorism is a pretty uncontroversial position politically, and so Twitter doesn't seem too worried that it will get sued by a coalition of terrorist groups for what it's doing to their accounts.  Terrorists have other ways of settling such disputes, and I hope they don't use them.

It's a shame that evildoers have bent the Internet to their will to the extent that firms like Twitter have to spend a lot of time and effort whacking moles, which in many cases pop up again right away, either on Twitter or on other more private Internet communications setups.  But doing nothing would be irresponsible.  The knowledge that such suspensions can happen is what makes most Twitter users behave, not so much the actual suspensions, just as the knowledge that one is liable to get a speeding ticket makes most people obey speed-limit signs whether or not there is an actual traffic cop in sight.  Kudos to Twitter for kicking suspected terrorists off the telephone wires, so to speak, and let's hope that their very public stance against such things forces terrorists into corners of the Internet where it is harder to recruit people to their cause.

By the way, I have begun to do a weekly tweet summarizing each blog post.  My Twitter handle is @karldstephan, in case you want to follow me there.

Sources:  The New York Times carried an article by Mike Isaac entitled "Twitter Steps Up Efforts to Thwart Terrorists’ Tweets" on Feb. 5, 2016 at  I also referred to the Twitter announcement of the 125,000 suspensions at, the Twitter Rules at, and the Wikipedia article on Twitter.

1 comment:

  1. The ethics of today's society has been bent in the wrong way and freedom of speech has been slung around and abused for the past several years. Having free speech and the right to say what is on your mind is important, however, it becomes a problem when you use it to organize terroristic attacks on people. There has to be a breaking point where you have to bend ethics if you have to in order to keep the American people safe and not let the terrorists break down our laws to use them against us. I agree with you that there should be kudos given to Twitter for playing whack a mole to keep the accounts that are using it for the bad off the telephone wire. The golden rule when I was growing up was that life is not always fair and sometimes you do not get your way and you have to deal with it. Giving terrorists the advantage of social media to utilize it in a negative way feels like stepping on your own toes and saying that life is fair that way. I say kudos to you for bringing up a sensitive topic and one that we should all stand firm in keeping our country safe from terrorism.