Free Speech Gets Tricky When ISIS Shows Up
Social networks struggle with open access as terrorists’ accounts proliferate
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militant group has been wrestling with major social media companies in an attempt to keep its hateful message online. Sites such as Twitter shut down ISIS wherever they can—so increasingly, the militants’ propaganda is also turning up downstream on smaller, alternative social platforms.
As ISIS fans spread the group’s nauseating snuff pics and hate-fueled rantings to a wider range of sites, they’re taking advantage of social media’s open philosophy—and leaving trouble in their wakes.
When ISIS routed the Iraqi army back in mid-June, it attracted the scrutiny of Twitter’s censors. The armed group has a disciplined and well-organized presence on the microblogging site, with accounts representing its media organs and provincial leadership.
Twitter began taking down a few of ISIS’ official accounts, including those of its media arms Al I’tisam and Al Hayat.
Twitter generally is mum on the motivations behind the suspensions. But its terms of service forbid users from making specific violent threats, which provides enough cause for the company to cancel terrorists’ accounts.
But not everyone is happy with the ability of large social media companies to exercise central control over the actions of their users. As social media like Facebook and Twitter have grown in popularity, alternative sites including Friendica and RedMatrix have offered social platforms with greater user privacy and freedom of expression.
“There is no central authority,” explains Mike Macgirivin, the principal developer and global coordinator of Friendica and RedMatrix.
Users can connect to the Friendica network in two ways. They can run the free, open-source software on their own server or they can create an account on one the free public servers. “They are provided by volunteers and are paid for out of pocket—for the benefit of providing free access,” Macgirvin says.
RedMatrix, which uses Friendica’s software, operates in a similar manner—although with greater privacy protections and built-in profile backup features.
That kind of infrastructure has made the networks welcoming places for dissident speech. But when ISIS propaganda unexpectedly appeared on the sites, it left many members concerned about legal jeopardy and the safety of fellow users.
In early July, ISIS devotees opened seven accounts on a Friendica.eu server, mirroring content from the group’s propaganda organs. With the accounts up and running, ISIS fans began advertising them on Twitter and in an affiliated Web forums as alternative hosts for the group’s content.
The links offered users convenient shortcuts to ISIS’ releases largely outside the reach of Twitter’s ban hammer.
Over the weekend, however, ISIS fanboys were shocked to discover that their accounts had disappeared and there was a banner in their place declaring, “IS not welcome on friendica.eu, congratulations to Bashar Al Assad on his reelection as president of Syria.”
Militants on Twitter fretted that someone had hacked the site—a common occurrence for online jihadis.
The reality was more prosaic. “[The militants] have made the mistake of using the Website of a private individual who is opposed to them,” one Friendica administrator says on condition of anonymity.
The administrator removed the seven accounts with ISIS material as well as any of the accounts that posted on their walls. The banner was his doing. “It was originally intended to be off-putting to the ISIS users while I dealt with this,” he explains.
The regime of Syrian president Al Assad has been at war with ISIS and its predecessor groups for three years.
The administrator says he subsequently edited out the congratulations to Al Assad out of respect for the political views of his non-ISIS users. He stresses that no one hacked the server.
Why did ISIS’s followers choose Friendica? Ever since an amateur pornographer from Maryland took control of an early Al Qaeda-affiliated Website in 2001, jihadi media have eked out an itinerant existence, wandering from host to host as administrative sensibilities and unidentified hackers have chased them off.
ISIS media—and accounts belonging to the group’s supporters—are present across a range of other social sites including Tumblr, YouTube and Facebook as well as more obscure hosts such as Archive.org, Justpaste and Gulfup.
Friendica’s experience, while not necessarily unique, illustrates how ISIS has managed to create a ban-resistant media distribution network, courtesy of its large and persistent web of supporters.
“Friendica was discovered by [ISIS] sympathizers to simply disperse jihadi media on one more platform with the ambition of making it more resilient,” says Nico Prucha, a researcher with the Austrian Institute for International Affairs who has studied jihadist social media.
The more places ISIS can spread its material, the harder it becomes much harder for any one actor to bock the militants’ propaganda.
Prucha’s research has shown the value of that dispersal for ISIS in weathering periodic suspensions from some of its more high-profile accounts. These accounts lose followers with each suspension and reemergence, as it can be difficult for followers to stay on top of the latest replacement handle.
Ordinarily this would limit a group’s reach, but as Prucha has documented, a large and distributed group of ISIS followers has acted as hubs, staying on top of the latest ISIS accounts and making it available to the wider network of supporters. Follow them and you can stay current on all the latest ISIS posts.
“It’s like a swarm,” Prucha says. “If you want to seriously hamper this kind of output, you would need to take down a plentitude of accounts—which is almost impossible.”
True to form, the swarm revisited the larger Friendica family just a day after its suspension. ISIS material reappeared on Libertypod, a site hosted by the RedMatrix network. Seth Martin, Libertypod’s administrator, quickly removed the material and sent a message to an email address associated with the content.
“You made the right decision by choosing the RedMatrix for your communications, but you need to host it yourself,” he wrote. “I must now remove your channel(s) from my servers to protect our safety.”
Later, Martin added a note on his own site. “Now I look back on that message and wonder if the message is jeopardizing our safety by providing a suggestion.”
Martin is not alone in being conflicted. Users across open-source social media have wondered aloud how to preserve free expression when the terrorists show up and start mouthing off.
In the United States, the First Amendment provides broad protection even to ISIS’ heinous and graphic content. But in Europe, where many Friendica servers reside, laws and policies restricting racist and terrorist speech could apply to ISIS’ social media posts.
“The administrators of these sites are free to set any rules they want on access, because they’re the ones left holding the bag if there’s a problem which results in legal issues,” Macgirvin explains.
“In my opinion this was a cheap shot by [ISIS],” he adds. “If they set up their own server, there’s nothing we could do to stop them publishing. Instead they put one of my friends [the administrator] in jeopardy.”
Other alternative social media platforms also are finding ISIS content on their networks. The militants’ supporters opened a profile on Quitter.se—an alternative to Twitter—just a day after Martin removed the content from his own site.
Quitter bills itself as “federation of microbloggers who care about ethics and solidarity and want to quit the centralized capitalist services.” Nonetheless, its admins had little patience for ISIS and removed the account, replacing it with a quote from Mahatma Ghandi and a link to the non-violent leader’s writings.
Friendica and RedMatrix administrators are on guard. Registrations on some public servers have been suspended and a handful of other admins have since opted to require authorization for new accounts.
“There’s an awful lot to consider here,” one RedMatrix commenter wrote of the incidents, “and a painful decision that’ll leave you wondering whether you did the right thing either way.”