A Delicate Dance: Fighting ISIS Online While Protecting Free Speech

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In October 2014, a teenager from the suburbs of Chicago was arrested at O’Hare International Airport for attempting to join the Islamic State terrorist organization. His method of communication with the group, also known as ISIS, or ISIL: Twitter.

Over the past few years, ISIS has increased its presence on social media platforms as a radicalization tool. From the European Union to the United States, ISIS has taken advantage of the relatively borderless world of social media to bring Muslims and non-Muslims into its twisted realm of influence, encouraging them to take violent action in their home country or to make the journey and join the caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq.

At a panel hosted by the Congressional Internet Caucus in Washington D.C. on Friday, experts discussed ISIS and other terrorist networks’ increasingly sophisticated online recruitment methods and what the government and the private sector can do to mitigate their efforts without affecting freedom of speech.

“[ISIS and other terrorist groups] reach out to disaffected youth and offer a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging,” said Rashad Hussain, member of the National Security Division at the U.S. Department of Justice. “As twisted as it sounds, they claim to be building something.”

A recent report by the Program on Extremism at George Washington University provided a window into the demographics of people ISIS is recruiting in the U.S. According to the report, the average age of those in the U.S. who have been recruited by ISIS is 26. Eighty-seven percent are male, and thirty-eighty percent are converts to Islam, not people who grew up in the faith. As of April 30, 2016, 85 individuals have been arrested on ISIS-related charges. 

Policing social media poses a unique challenge to the federal government: how to effectively tamper hateful messaging and support of violent acts without infringing on the First Amendment.

There has been increased co-operation between the government and social media companies to thwart the threat of online radicalization. But Emma Llanso, Director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Free Expression Project and a member at Friday’s discussion, worries about government policies that could throw a blanket over the broad and ambiguous category of “unlawful speech.”

“Is it a direct incitement to violence? A true threat of violence? We don’t have broad prohibitions against hate speech, no definition of extremist content as a set of unlawful speech,” Llanso cautioned.

She underscored the importance of prohibiting hate speech or actions that incite violence, but also the imperative to preserve freedom of speech, something she noted as leading to the innovation that sparked the variety of ways we now have to express ourselves online.

Social media platforms all formulate their own terms of service, or a sets of rules that outline the types of messages that are or are not welcome on their sites and might be taken down or reported to government authorities. Llanso portended that a policy requiring companies to share messages deemed “unlawful” would do more harm than good.

She said it would lead social media companies “to err on the side of caution in reporting their users to the government as suspects of terrorist acts.”

Hussain agreed that government should play a limited role in ensuring social media platforms don’t exist as places where extremist ideas are disseminated and allowed to fester. He advocated for a “counter messaging” strategy, taking advantage of the platforms to spread messages on the other end of the spectrum as groups like ISIS.

He called for spreading messages “highlighting ISIL battlefield losses” and ones that “expose living conditions” of ISIS members.

“[Social media] platforms provide an opportunity for counter messaging and positive messaging,” he said, noting that there are also opportunities to spread the positive values Muslim communities stand for.

Seamus Hughes, who heads the Program on Extremism at George Washington University and is a previous member of the National Counterterrorism Center, also underlined the need for counter messaging in lieu of “takedowns,” or the removal of ISIS-supported accounts on sites like Twitter.

Studies have shown that accounts that are removed do experience an immediate drop in followers when they come back, he said, but the platform’s “built in system of resiliency” allows users to reconfigure their accounts under different names.

But for all of the radicalization opportunities afforded by the tricky semantics and difficult-to-police sites like Twitter, Hughes reinforced the fact that “the physical space of a caliphate is a driver for people to go.”

“Twitter is a place to facilitate the recruitment,” he said. “It’s not like if Twitter went away tomorrow we wouldn’t have recruits that are joining [terrorist groups].”

Alec Siegel
Alec Siegel is a staff writer at Law Street Media. When he’s not working at Law Street he’s either cooking a mediocre tofu dish or enjoying a run in the woods. His passions include: gooey chocolate chips, black coffee, mountains, the Animal Kingdom in general, and John Lennon. Baklava is his achilles heel. Contact Alec at



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