Pressure is building on social media companies to police terrorist content online amid growing fears about the spread of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The tech companies, and Twitter in particular, are facing growing calls from the White House and congressional Democrats to take a more aggressive role in battling ISIS propaganda following last week’s shooting in California.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, is reaching out to Silicon Valley companies about ways that they could help U.S. officials combat the threat of “lone wolf” attacks.
“We constantly examine our strategy to determine when additional steps are needed to get the job done,” President Obama said Sunday night in remarks from the Oval Office. “And that’s why I will urge high-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice.”
The drumbeat to tighten terrorist access to social media began last week after two suspects opened fire on a Christmas party at a health services facility in San Bernardino, Calif., killing 14.
The FBI on Monday said the suspected shooters, Tashfeen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook, had been radicalized for “quite some time.” Malik posted allegiance to ISIS on Facebook using a pseudonym.
While ISIS did not claim responsibility for the shooting, it lauded the couple’s actions.
The terrorist ambitions of ISIS have been growing since the group seized large parts of Iraq and Syria last year and declared it was founding a caliphate.
The group’s first major foray into social media came last summer, when it posted a YouTube video of a member beheading the journalist James Foley. Since then, ISIS’s online activity has grown significantly, with Twitter becoming a central part of its recruitment activity.
“Twitter is the heart and soul of cyber jihad, and it has been for the past few years,” said Steve Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest on Monday said the administration is asking tech companies to take specific steps to curb ISIS’s social media presence but declined to provide details.
He added that asking Silicon Valley to boot ISIS from social media platforms and limit their encryption involves some “thorny questions,” including First Amendment concerns.
“We’re going to resist the urge to go and trample a bunch of civil liberties here. But there are steps that we believe we can work through with the technology companies to take some common-sense measures that would enhance public safety,” Earnest said.
Experts note that there are risks to the federal government encouraging a private company to censor speech.
Although social media companies could mimic the established policies for taking down child pornography, spotting terrorist content isn’t nearly as cut-and-dried.
“The free speech concerns are really weighty because to the extent that these companies are acting at the instruction of the government, it’s essentially the government at that point,” said David Greene, Civil Liberties Director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online civil liberties organization.
“I don’t know what the line is [between terrorism and political speech],” Greene said. “I don’t think anybody knows what the line is.”
Social media firms now rely on the terms of service of their sites to justify the removal of ISIS-affiliated content, and law enforcement agencies can make removal requests.
Facebook has been aggressive, and largely successful, in identifying and shutting down terrorist-affiliated accounts on its platform, according to Stalinsky.
Following the San Bernardino attacks, Facebook removed the profile of one of the attackers from its site for “violating our community standards.”
A Facebook spokesman told The Hill that the company does not allow people to “praise acts of terror or promote terrorism.”
Twitter is said to have a spottier record in removing terroristic content. The company, which deactivated around 10,000 accounts associated with ISIS for “tweeting violent threats” in April, has largely played a game of whack-a-mole with extremist accounts: It shuts one down only to have the same user crop up again under a new handle.
A March study from the Brookings Institution estimated that from September through December 2014, ISIS supporters used at least 46,000 Twitter accounts, although not all of them were active at the same time.
Some civil liberties activists have expressed concerns that deactivating large groups of ISIS-associated accounts could chill an outlet for free speech in regions where dissidents rely on Twitter to make their voices heard.
Twitter has been outspoken about the need to protect its integrity as a free-speech platform.
In July, a Twitter official speaking anonymously to The Washington Post defended the company’s reputation for supporting free speech but said that it “has clear rules governing what is permissible.”
“The use of Twitter by violent extremist groups to threaten horrific acts of depravity and violence is of grave concern and against our policies, period,” the official told the Post.