Terrorists on Twitter: social media safe haven?

By Bianna Golodryga

The news over the weekend of yet another video released by the Islamic State, showing a beheaded American aid worker, has once again put the role social media plays in the fight against global extremism in the forefront.

A former White House Homeland Security Advisor is convinced that these sites have become a safe haven for terrorist organisations like IS to spread their message and recruit violent jihadists.

Having spent more than two decades in the field of global terrorism, Frances Townsend, former Homeland Security Advisor to President George W. Bush and now head of the Counter Extremism Project, has witnessed just about everything imaginable when it comes to the subject. But most recently, it is what she's witnessing on Twitter that has her greatest attention - and concern.

In an interview with Yahoo News last on Friday, Townsend said her frustration is that Twitter is not acting urgently and quickly enough to pull down these users.

"We identified an account with an individual who said he wanted to plant the IS flag in the head of our leaders like President Obama," said Townsend. "I mean, these are not people who just espouse the sort of views that I find offensive personally. These are people actually calling for themselves and others to commit violent acts. It's been frustrating. It'll take Twitter 10 to 12 days to actually shut them down. And it takes these guys, you know, as long as it takes to take a home pregnancy test before they reopen another account and they're up."

Twitter, for its part, eventually responded, and removed 12 accounts flagged by the Counter Extremism Project under the hashtag #CEPDigitalDisruption. However, a number of those users have resurfaced under new Twitter handles, and those accounts are still active.

We last spoke with Townsend in SeptemberTownsend in September, () when, alongside partner Mark Wallace, she announced the formation of the Counter Extremism Project, or CEP. The organisation describes itself as "a not-for-profit, non-partisan, international policy organisation formed to combat the growing threat from extremist ideology." And the easiest and most effective way to spread that ideology, in Townsend's opinion, is via social media.

It's not just social media companies like Twitter which are hesitant to agree to Townsend's requests. The U.S. government has also approached the issue in a hands-off manner, with some experts suggesting that the government feels that keeping the accounts up is helpful in tracking the actions and whereabouts of extremists. The State Department's Think Again, Turn Away program focuses on engaging with the extremists through social media, as opposed to trying to have their accounts deleted.

So how does Townsend - whose organisation has a little more than 700 Twitter followers - feel about taking on such Goliaths? With a laugh, she counters with, "You understand that it's effective, right? And the greatest indication to me that we're being effective against their message is that they - the bad guys - have started to target CEP and @FightExtremism. … And they try to get us shut down. And the answer is that if it didn't matter to them, they wouldn't bother with us."

Morning news break - November 17