Terrorists on Twitter Challenge Right to Free Speech Online

You can’t yell fire in a crowded room.  You can’t blackmail someone else. Yet so far the First Amendment has its tongue tied when it comes to terrorist organizations Tweeting calls to jihad online.

In what has become a disturbingly gray area between free speech and terrorist support, the Twitter-sphere is playing host to its newest social media junkie: the Somali militant group, al-Shabaab. 

Recognized internationally as a terrorist organization (FTO), al-Shabaab rules the southern half of Somalia under brutal Sharia reign.  Their leap from violently rejecting all things Western to suddenly maintaining a Twitter feed has ignited worldwide controversy, as tweets in perfect English boast of death tolls, violent battle reports, and arrogant taunts to oppositional African leaders.

The issue is: do these tweets fall under the protection from the First Amendment?

Some proponents claim they do, while others cite the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project to indict Twitter.  Specifically, this ruling prohibits “services” to terrorist organizations. 

According to Israeli lawyer, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, providing terrorist organizations with a platform for voicing their activities and beliefs is just the “type of seemingly innocuous material support that would render [Twitter] personally, criminally and civilly liable.”            

The Shabaab launched a Twitter campaign on December 7, 2011 under the feed @HSMPress, which claims to be the press office of Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahedeen, the Shabaab’s full name. Since then, the organization has amassed over 7,500 followers and posted over 200 tweets, ranging from personal taunts to the Kenyan army spokesman Emmanuel Chirchir (“Try ballet instead…War is for Men!”), to disturbingly accurate accounts of the group’s suicide missions and progressing warfare with neighboring African states (“stay tuned for updates”).  All in 140 characters or less.  Plus hash tags.

Only when rotten corpses and amputated limbs begin arriving in #Nairobi in body bags will the Kenyan conscious be fully awakened #BeWarned!,” read a recent tweet.

Though Twitter has consistently declined comment on the situation, the U.S. government hints at possible legal action to shut down the feed.  In a report by the New York Times, the State Department is apparently “looking closely” at the militants’ new use of social media to determine what the “appropriate next steps might be.” 

The “appropriate steps” may not be as straightforward as the State Department or Darshan-Leitner would like, however. 

The Supreme Court “has not directly addressed the issue of whether any speech allegedly supportive of a designated terrorist organization is unlawful,” stated Aden Fine, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.  

And even from the other side of the globe, the Al-Shabaab has been eerily cognizant of the uneasiness it stirs in the rest of the Western world.  In a shout out to Obama and his administration, the Shabab mused over the slippery hold the government has over such a nebulous platform like Twitter. 

“How many accounts would #US government be able to close before realizing the futility of their attempt? They need a team now to monitor HSM!” a December 20 tweet read. 

For al-Shabaab, and those concerned with their growing voice, it’s not just about collecting Twitter followers, or starting a new trending topic.  In fact, the danger may extend much further than the virtual space.

“Social media has helped terrorist groups recruit individuals, fund-raise and distribute propaganda more efficiently than they have in the past,” said Seth G. Jones, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, revealing what the State Department classifies as one of the top terrorism threats to the United States.  Several American citizens have already committed suicide bombings in Somalia alongside al-Shabaab militants, converts of the radical cause from overseas.

In this instance, the fine line between free speech and terrorism support is frustratingly blurred, leaving the American government without a clear direction.  And, as the Shabaab so graciously pointed out, it seems slightly more manageable to keep someone off an airplane than, say, the World Wide Web.        


by Rachel Greenway




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