- The Washington Times - Monday, March 30, 2015

Social media activists posted the largest list yet of Twitter accounts affiliated with the Islamic State terrorist group on Tuesday, containing over 26,000 accounts.

Of the total 26,000 accounts listed, over 10,000 are active and nearly 15,000 have been suspended as a result of the continuing cyber battle between Anonymous and the Islamic State.

The latest list — posted just weeks after a list of 9,200 Twitter accounts was compiled and posted by hacking groups Anonymous, GhostSec and Ctrlsec — was created by just one individual using a database that automatically finds accounts that are distributing terrorist propaganda.

The database tracks everything from account followers to when the account was last active, all in real time, a source familiar with the list told The Washington Times. It also keeps track of accounts that have been flagged and suspended to figure out if that user is active on a separate account.

According to the source, the fact that the list was compiled, through legal means, by one individual using one server proves that the government or Twitter could create a similar system to combat online terrorists at minimal cost.

“This individual is a citizen that didn’t commit a crime and he is releasing it because he strongly believes in the cause and he is really opposed to the things that ISIS does,” the source said. “It’s ok to stand behind this list, it’s not a byproduct of illegal hacking.”

The newest list is part of an ongoing campaign by “hacktivists” around the world to enlist everyday Twitter users to stymie the spread of terrorist propaganda on the social media platform by following accounts on the list and then reporting those accounts to Twitter for removal.

But the fight against against Islamic extremism on Twitter is an “uphill battle,” according to the source, who explained that new ISIS-affiliated accounts are being created faster than they are being suspended, due to Twitter’s slow reporting and removal process.

“Realistically, reporting accounts is just an annoyance,” the source said, adding that it might slow the militant group down temporarily, but the only way to put an end to the spread of jihadist propaganda is for Twitter to step in.

“Twitter doesn’t want to remove every single account on the list, because of concerns over freedom of expression,” the source said. “It’s kind of a paradox, if those people had it their way and everyone subscribed to this view of Islam then there wouldn’t be free speech.”

Even just the addition of a “terrorism” reporting option would be helpful, the source said, because it would allow Twitter to prioritize which accounts to review.

In an email to the Times, a spokesperson for Twitter said “we review all reported content against our rules, which prohibit unlawful use and direct, specific threats of violence against others.”

Earlier this month several lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee penned a letter to Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, urging him to ramp up efforts to deactivate accounts run by Islamic State sympathizers.

In their letter, Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), ranking member Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.), and Reps. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and Ted Poe (R-Texas) also called for Twitter to create a reporting option for “terrorist content.”

“We applaud your removal of some terrorist content, which has provoked serious threats against Twitter and its employees. However, we urge Twitter to treat all terrorist activity in the same way it treats other objectionable content. Users should have the option to report terrorist content in a streamlined manner, allowing Twitter to quickly block content and accounts that support terrorism, and Twitter should have a dedicated team to review such reports in a timely fashion,” they wrote in the letter.

In a response letter to the committee, Vijaya Gadde, General Counsel for Twitter, wrote that due to the massive amount of Tweets posted on a daily basis around the world, the company must rely on it’s users to report inappropriate activity.

“We have teams around the world providing 24-7 coverage who receive reports from our users and appropriate law enforcement agencies with respect to threats of violence on the platform. We take this job seriously and we have expanded — and continue to expand — these teams. In response to these reports from users, trusted partners, and law enforcement entities, we have suspended thousands of Twitter accounts from terrorist organizations or related accounts based on violent content that violates our Terms of Service,” Ms. Gadde wrote.

The letter did not address the option to include a “terrorist activity” reporting option but stressed the importance of freedom of expression online.

“Twitter’s open platform for expression must always seek to strike a balance between the legitimate needs of law enforcement, the enforcement of our own Twitter Rules, as well as the ability of users to share freely their views - including views that many people may disagree with or find abhorrent,” Ms. Gadde wrote. “The importance of free expression in a democratic society is an abiding value that we will continue to protect even as we address foreign terrorist organizations and violent content on our platform.”

However, it’s clear that Twitter has a long way to go to combat the spread of jihadist propaganda on it’s platform, the source said, arguing that other social media platforms like Facebook and Youtube have been more aggressive in their response to online extremism.

“Almost all of the propaganda that ISIS spreads originates through Twitter, all of the other [social media] companies are so good at immediately responding to that information,” the source said.

• Kellan Howell can be reached at khowell@washingtontimes.com.

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