Tweet revenge: New York Times reports Twitter's efforts to keep out ISIS

When social media do nothing about terrorism, critics complain. And when social media do something, critics complain.

"Some guys do nothing but complain," as Rod Stewart, well, complained.

But it's true with Twitter's fight against terrorism, says to a New York Times story. The microblog firm announced it had suspended about 10,000 Islamic State accounts for "tweeting violent threats." It's just a tiny fraction of the estimated 90,000 such accounts linked to Islamic State -- which, the newspaper points out, is also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh -- but it sounds like a decent start.

Users who also oppose ISIS, though, accuse Twitter of a weak p.r. stunt that does nothing to halt the hate online.  The objections, and Twitter's answers, are the topic of this fairly short, 535-word story.

But the Times takes the risky route of using only unnamed sources for this piece. It also risks imbalance in focusing solely on what Twitter is doing and ignoring what Twitter is trying to stop.

Evidently, the social media giant is increasingly sensitive about its image. According to the Times, Twitter has long fought efforts to misuse its system:

The suspensions came against a backdrop of rising criticism that Twitter has allowed the Islamic State to exploit the social network to spread propaganda, glorify violence and seek recruits.
Twitter previously acknowledged suspending as many as 2,000 ISIS-linked accounts per week in recent months.
The Twitter representative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons, attributed the surge of suspensions in part to a widely publicized effort by ISIS opponents, including some hacking groups and online vigilantes, to expose suspect accounts and report them as violators.

The Times notes that Twitter faces a dilemma in seeking to promote free speech while snuffing out talk that leads to murder. Curiously, the article doesn't use the term "hate speech," although ISIS' threats would certainly seem to qualify.

I liked the lore about the hackers and "online vigilantes" that find and report the online terrorists.  Some of the users worry that the account deletions will make it harder to watch the terrorists, although others applaud Twitter for trying to "deny ISIS a social media platform."

Others call the deletions a mere public relations stunt that would accomplish no good. They say that many get back online fast, often with the same name plus a number or letter.

One vigilante, @xrsone, says he's seen only deletions of accounts that were already suspended. Twitter denies that, saying the users can't access internal data and can't track the half-billion tweets every day.

But it's highly questionable for the Times to rely totally on unnamed sources in this story. Three of them are identified only by Twitter usernames. The fourth source is "a Twitter representative." All speak up, we are told, on condition of anonymity for "security reasons" or "safety reasons."

OK, you can see the logic in that. They don’t want to become ISIS targets themselves. And they may well have valuable knowledge. But it's still a yellow flag. As Poynter's Mallary Jean Tenore said years ago, media like the Chicago Sun-Times, Denver Post, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Village Voice and ESPN have been embarrassed by writers who plagiarized or made up facts and sources. So have the Times' own Maureen Dowd and, of course, Jayson Blair.

And as I've hinted, I believe the Times piece also sins by omission. Maybe the newspaper believes the threat of the Islamic State is already so obvious that it's not necessary to show the group's output. But the militants obviously have sold their story to thousands of Twitter users. The natural question would be "Like what?"

The user @xrsone himself has written on the need to know the other side. In releasing a list of 26,000 Twitter names of ISIS and its supporters, he urged:

I would like to ask each one of you to stop what you’re doing and take a few minutes to actually view some of these accounts. Every word, every image and video is designed to inspire hate. Every gender, race, religion, creed, and sexual orientation is mocked and demoralized. Looking through these accounts you will see complete disregard for human life. There are no civil liberties or freedom, there is no justice.

Unfortunately, this is hard to check from his lists; nearly all the accounts I saw were in Arabic. And most of the photos simply showed militants firing mortars or carrying those big machine guns. A good idea would have been for the Times to ask an Arabic speaker to look through the content for some examples that the militants spread hate.

At bottom, the Times article is rather heartening. It provides a peek at the coalition of a corporation and individual hackers aligned against the Islamic State and its sympathizers. But the story would have been better with named sources. And, as I said, it would have benefited by reminding us what ISIS wishes to accomplish. I.e., what's at stake in the war against them.

Cyber-terrorism image via

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