Social media giants Facebook and Twitter are grappling with terrorists who are moving from websites to microblogs as a way to spread propaganda, recruit members, and communicate.
U.S. officials familiar with efforts to monitor social media say Islamist terrorists have increased their use of social media in recent months.
Currently, numerous U.S. and allied intelligence agencies are engaged in large-scale efforts to monitor online activities by Islamists, jihadists, and terrorists.
Based on those agencies’ reports, the intelligence services are having a difficult time balancing the need to keep track of terrorist group members and their statements when the Twitter and Facebook accounts are shut down for advocating violence or otherwise promoting illegal activities.
On the one hand, spy agencies want social media to allow some of the terrorists’ Twitter and Facebook accounts to remain open to keep tabs on them. The postings often can provide clues to online friends’ and followers’ locations and in some cases they can be traced electronically.
In most cases, terrorists’ accounts that are closed or suspended for advocating violence are quickly re-opened using slightly different names.
But problems arise when social media accounts used by terrorists are taken offline, complicating real-time intelligence monitoring. In many cases it takes up to 18 hours to locate the new accounts that reappear under new names.
"They often come to us and say ‘do not take down these accounts,’" one social media executive said of the U.S. government.
The problem of counterterrorism monitoring of social media took center stage last month during the attack by the Somali al Qaeda Al Shabaab on the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya. In the midst of the deadly attack, which killed 68 shoppers and storekeepers, Al Shabaab opened multiple Twitter accounts, each replacing one that was deactivated by the site.
In all, the group operated seven Twitter accounts that were closed before another was opened.
The social media communications by Al Shabaab were the first time a terrorist group made public statements during an ongoing attack. The messages by the group were mainly propaganda statements explaining the goals of the attack. But all were closely followed by international news media and security services for clues to the group’s plans and operations.
Terrorists also have used YouTube to post videos. Syrian rebels uploaded several videos showing Islamists beheading people, including a Catholic priest, and in two cases video showed jihadists eating the internal organs of killed Syrian soldiers.
The videos were eventually removed for violating the YouTube’s terms of service prohibiting the promotion of violence or criminal activity.
Twitter and Facebook officials declined comment on the record. But spokesmen for both said the companies try to balance concerns for security and stopping criminal activity with the need for free speech and openness.
Company spokesmen discussed some aspects of their policies on dealing generally with abuses, including terrorist on social media, on condition of anonymity.
The spokesmen for both social media outlets referred to online statements of policy that prohibit advocating violence or threats, and also ban illegal activities.
Additionally, Twitter and Facebook declined to discuss their interaction with government on counterterrorism. They instead pointed to online policy statements governing the sharing of members’ data with law enforcement and implicitly with U.S. intelligence. Both companies require court orders or subpoenas before granting access to user data. Search warrants are needed for access to communications.
Twitter user profile data is public, as are Tweets. Facebook’s format allows more private social interaction although it remains a very open media with few restrictions on content or users.
"At Facebook, we have rules that bar direct statements of hate, attacks on private individuals and groups, and the promotion of terrorism," a Facebook spokesman said. "Where hateful content is posted and reported, Facebook removes it and disables accounts of those responsible."
The problem for both Twitter and Facebook is the vast numbers of accounts and huge numbers of postings. Neither company actively monitors the millions of Tweets and billions of Facebook postings placed online each day.
Facebook users post 4.75 billion pieces of content every day. The company could not provide statistics for the number of reports of abuse by Islamists.
Instead, the company relies exclusively on users to report abuses of Facebook’s terms of service. Facebook has teams of specialists who respond to reports of abuse review the cases.
"When that happens, a user operations team reviews that content, and sees if it violates the terms of service," the spokesman said. "If it does, it will be taken down quickly and the user is notified."
The most serious violations are easily corrected, and include postings of child pornography or stolen private information.
In the case of terrorist groups, technically and legally the groups are permitted to operate Facebook accounts if the content does not violate the terms of service. But the company weighs a number of legal and other factors in its decisions to close or leave open objectionable accounts.
Like Facebook, Twitter does not actively monitor content and relies on users to report cases of abuse.
There are some 500 million Tweets sent out each day in over 36 languages.
The company receives hundreds of abuse reports daily often with requests to close accounts. Several Twitter teams operating in different time zones also review the reports. In many cases the requests are dismissed because the reports falsely identified violations of the terms of services.
On the Westgate terror attack, one official said dealing with Al Shabaab Twitter accounts was "like playing wack-a-mole" — once an account was shuttered, another would open within hours.
In other cases, apparent terrorist Twitter accounts are reported and after review are found to be accounts by people masquerading as terrorists.
Twitter also seeks to promote free speech, within its rules. The company is also global and as a result must seek to comply with the laws within the countries it operates. For example, Germany has stricter laws against anti-Semitism than the United States. So the company applies filters for Germany that block anti-Semitic Tweets.
Twitter teams that review objectionable content are made up of a variety of security, civil liberties, linguists and others who consult on reported abuses.
The company also has a strict rule against discussing individual Twitter accounts.
The U.S. officials said few terrorist groups today do not have a presence on Twitter or Facebook, a marked change from several years ago.
Last month, a significant milestone for the terrorists’ use of social media was met when al Qaeda’s official online website opened its first Twitter account. Until September, the al Qaeda-approved, Shamukh al-Islam website was password protected and used only by approved members. It was used as an official clearing house for al Qaeda members to communicate and issue propaganda statements.
But on Sept. 24, the group opened its first Twitter account and officials said it reflected the group’s desire to try and patch up a rift within the group over Syria.
The Twitter account was temporarily shut down, but later reopened.
Among the jihadists, there is also discussion of infiltration and deception by security services that are seeking to spy on the groups or disrupt their activities.
For example, one online jihadist posted a message last week about a wave of jihadists’ Twitter accounts that were hacked and disabled and warned about intelligence services targeting online jihadists.
For Facebook, the Libyan al Qaeda-affiliated group Ansar al Sharia has used its Arabic-language page to promote the idea that the group is no longer a terrorist group and seeks instead to conduct community service projects.
Ansar al Sharia is the new face of al Qaeda in North Africa with branches in Darna and Benghazi.
It was the group behind the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
In Syria, the al Qaeda group Al Nusrah Front, uses Twitter on a daily basis to announce its attacks and "martyrdom operations."
Asian al Qaeda-affiliated groups also have accounts on Twitter and Facebook.