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Twitter Takes on Cyber Harassment. Is ISIS Next?

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on December 31, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

It's easy to be a jerk on Twitter. It's so easy, indeed, that the social media network has been flooded with angry young men harassing women and trolls spamming Star Wars spoilers. Twitter has even become one of the main recruiting platforms for both ISIS and Donald Trump.

Now, Twitter has taken a stronger stance against cyber harassment and online bullying, clarifying its policy on abusive and hateful conduct. Once the bullies are taken care of, will terrorist recruiters be next?

Twitter's New Rules

Twitter announced yesterday that it was "updating the Twitter Rules to clarify what we consider to be abusive behavior and hateful conduct." Twitter Rules are part of the sites terms of service and state that accounts may be temporarily locked or permanently suspended for:

  • Violent threats, whether direct or indirect;
  • Harassment, defined as "the targeted abuse of others." In identifying harassing behaviors, Twitter will look at a variety of factors, including whether they primary purpose of the account is to harass, if the behavior is one-sided, or if an account encourages others to harass;
  • Hateful conduct, including promoting violence directly or indirectly; and
  • Posting others' private information.

Twitter is backing up the new policy with an increased investment in "policy enforcement." According to a blog post announcing the change, the company is engaging in a "multi-layered strategy for fighting abuse" which includes:

creating mandatory actions for suspected abusive behavior, such as email and phone verification, and user deletion of Tweets for violations. These measures curb abusive behaviour [sic] by helping the community understand what is acceptable on our platform.

But What About the Terrorists?

While cyberbullying has been in the public eye for years now, social media has recently come under scrutiny as a major platform for extremist recruitment. Ali Amin, a Virginia teenager, was sentenced to 11 years in prison this summer, after pleading guilty to materially supporting ISIS, in part by running a pro-ISIS Twitter account.

Amin, who was otherwise a typical American teen, except for the terrorism part, was drawn to ISIS by the supposed power his tweets gave him. "For the first time, I felt I was not only being taken seriously about very important and weighty topics, but was actually being asked for guidance," he told his judge.

Isolated terrorists and terrorist sympathizers share one common characteristic, according to a recent profile of Amin by The New York Times: "the weeks or months marinating in the rhetoric and symbolism of the Islamic State, courtesy of Twitter and other Internet platforms."

Some politicians have urged social media to take a more aggressive stance in shutting down extremist accounts. In a November foreign policy speech, Hillary Clinton argued that "social media companies can also do their part by swiftly shutting down terrorist accounts, so they're not used to plan, provoke, or celebrate violence."

Twitter's clarified policy would certainly allow that. But simply shutting down teenage ISIS fans, the kids who regularly troll the Pope, or everyday cyberbullies will take more than just a good policy, it will take an investment larger than any social media company has made to date.

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