Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has a plan to fight ISIS online, and it’s only marginally less impractical than the crackpot censorship strategies suggested in Congress.
Clinton talked about ways the US could be more aggressive with ISIS online in a speech Thursday. Her digital strategy has two main components. The first part makes sense: Clinton wants to expand a State Department program to track terrorists’ recruitment strategies online. OK. Good start.
The second prong of her plan goes off the rails. “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,” Clinton said.
Taking down social media accounts is the same strategy Anonymous is using in its “war” against ISIS, and it’s not the right one.
Clinton wants social media platforms to get better at kicking terrorists off their networks, but companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter have already been actively monitoring and booting suspected terrorist accounts.
“There is no place for terrorists on Facebook. We work aggressively to ensure that we do not have terrorists or terror groups using the site, and we also remove any content that praises or supports terrorism,” a Facebook spokesperson told Gizmodo.
“We have a community of more than 1.5 billion people who are very good at letting us know when something is not right. We make it easy for them to flag content for us, and they do. We have a global team responding to those reports around the clock, and we prioritize any safety-related report, including any terrorism-related reports, for immediate review.”
Of course, they could hire more employees to proactively find terrorist accounts before they get flagged by other users. But on pseudonymous platforms like Twitter—which is one of ISIS’s favorite recruiting tools—a suspended account is a measly roadblock.
A terrorist with a suspended account can simply make a new account in seconds. Clinton didn’t provide any specific instruction for how to make account take-downs more effective—because there really isn’t any. That’s why abusive accounts on Twitter remain such a problem. There’s no easy way to stop someone from signing up for a platform designed to let anyone sign up without fundamentally changing how it works.
A recent Brookings Institute report on ISIS’s Twitter use identified the downsides of taking these accounts down, in addition to how ineffective it is. Pulling ISIS accounts on social media will hinder intelligence-gathering, which runs counter to Clinton’s insistence that the US needs better information-gathering on its enemies. “There is clear intelligence value to be extracted from the ISIS accounts we examined,” the report says. “Most prominently, a significant number of accounts provided reliable GPS coordinates in ISIS territories.”
What’s more, pulling down accounts could make groups more radical and will make it harder to counter-recruit people away from ISIS. “ISIS social networks on Twitter are becoming even more insular than they were to begin with,” the report says. “When we segregate members of ISIS social networks, we are, to some extent, also closing off potential exit ramps.”
The Islamic State uses the internet as a potent communication and recruitment tool. It’s a serious threat, and one that every presidential candidate and member of Congress should take seriously. Yanking ISIS accounts, however, is not a viable strategy. And pretending like it’s a vital step shows just how lost politicians like Clinton are as they assuage worried voters.