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Twitter takes down Hamas, Hezbollah-affiliated accounts after lawmaker pressure

Twitter takes down Hamas, Hezbollah-affiliated accounts after lawmaker pressure
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Twitter has taken down several accounts affiliated with Hamas and Hezbollah after facing public pressure from a group of bipartisan lawmakers who accused the platform of flouting U.S. law. 

Twitter's decision to begin purging accounts associated with "foreign terrorist organizations" is a pivot from its earlier stance of keeping some Hamas and Hezbollah-affiliated accounts online. 

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Over the weekend, Twitter removed several English-language and Arabic accounts associated with Hamas and Hezbollah's news and political arms after vowing to "review" accounts highlighted by Reps. Josh GottheimerJoshua (Josh) GottheimerDemocrats face increasing pressure to back smaller COVID-19 stimulus Democrat Gottheimer wins reelection in New Jersey Cook Political Report shifts 8 more House races toward Democrats MORE (D-N.J.), Tom ReedTom ReedDemocrats face increasing pressure to back smaller COVID-19 stimulus Bipartisan lawmakers call for expedited diabetes research The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Dems push McConnell on COVID-19 relief; Grassley contracts COVID-19 MORE (R-N.Y.), Max RoseMax RoseGOP sees path to House majority in 2022 Bickering Democrats return with divisions Here are the 17 GOP women newly elected to the House this year MORE (D-N.Y.) and Brian FitzpatrickBrian K. FitzpatrickDemocrats were united on top issues this Congress — but will it hold? Divided citizenry and government — a call to action for common ground OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Down ballot races carry environmental implications | US officially exits Paris climate accord  MORE (R-Pa.) last month.

Twitter has also blocked a news account associated with the Houthi movement in Yemen, called "The Central Warfare Channel," according to an Iranian news outlet

The lawmakers first raised their concerns about the Hamas and Hezbollah accounts in a letter to Twitter in September, and then held a public press conference decrying Twitter's stance last month when the platform declined to take down the accounts.

"My colleagues and I were outraged when [Twitter] first responded to us — contrary to Facebook and Google, [Twitter] insisted that they were going to keep up the content of ... Hezbollah and Hamas," Gottheimer told The Hill in a phone interview from his district on Monday.

"To me, it's essential that they’ve taken these steps to scrape the content and the handles of foreign terrorist organizations off their site," Gottheimer said. 

But, he added, the lawmakers are remaining "vigilant" as they seek to ensure "this is not a one-off but actually a change in policy." 

In a letter last month, Twitter's U.S. Policy Director Carlos Monje Jr. told the lawmakers that the platform allows accounts associated with the political arms of groups designated by the U.S. as "foreign terrorist organizations," though it does not allow their military wings to have a presence on the platform.

Monje also noted that Twitter allows groups engaged in active peace resolution processes to remain online, as well as groups that have been elected to public office.

The Hamas administration was elected to serve as the governing body of the Gaza Strip over a decade ago, and Hezbollah has been a legitimate part of the government in Lebanon since 2005. Though the U.S. and other Western countries have designated both Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations, both groups have political arms that are responsible for representing large swaths of people and providing social services in Palestinian territory and Lebanon, respectively. Hamas has been involved in continual negotiations with the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization for years. 

Gottheimer and the other lawmakers made Monje's letter public and held a press conference to press the platform on the issue late last month, pointing out it is largely illegal for U.S. businesses to engage with groups designated as "foreign terrorist organizations." 

And in a letter dated Nov. 1, Monje seemed to agree with their assessment, writing, "If Twitter identifies an account as affiliated with Hamas or Hizballah, Twitter's policy is to terminate that account. We are in the process of reviewing the accounts identified in your letter and if we confirm that they are foreign terrorist organization accounts, they will be terminated." 

A Twitter spokesperson declined to comment on whether there has been a formal policy change, but said in a statement to The Hill, "We have a long history of taking strong enforcement action, using a combination of people, partnerships, and technology." 

Between January to June 2019, Twitter said it suspended 115,861 accounts for promoting terrorism, a decrease of 30 percent from the year before. Eighty-seven percent of those accounts were flagged by Twitter's internal artificial intelligence tools.  

"We did push them to take action and they did," Gottheimer told The Hill. "I guarantee you between our teams and outside organizations, we will keep a watchful eye on their activity."