In the "old" days, post-Internet but pre-Twitter, from the early to the late 2000s, jihadism functioned largely as a top-down enterprise. The movement was tightly controlled first by organizations and later by the administrators of message boards such as Ansar al-Mujahideen and al-Shamikh, who were in turn beholden to al Qaeda proper.
By design, these controls stifled the free exchange of ideas. Jihadis lived in a petri dish, and if a user didn't know his place, he found himself on the outside looking in.
Social media is changing that dynamic at a startling pace. Because relationships are free-form and unconstrained, jihadists are seeing a substantial increase in dissent, and because there are no administrators who can restrict relationships on Twitter, that dissent will invariably manifest itself on the list of recommendations.
For example, a user who follows the pro-Shabab Muslim Youth Center on Twitter immediately receives a recommendation to follow Omar Hammami, the American jihadist dissenter in Somalia whose tweets about al-Shabab corruption resulted in the slaughter of a significant portion of Shabab's senior leadership.
Despite rapid growth, we're still in the early stages of the jihadist migration to social media, which has been sparked in part by frequent outages and technical challenges on the old-school message boards, as well as disputes among prominent online and offline personalities. But the rise of public dissent and the fast pace of Twitter are likely to spark new strains of thought and create new fractures in traditional party lines.
In Twitter's free market of ideas, dissenters will face Darwinian pressures and opportunities. Ideas and personalities that are strong enough to compete will win followers, and eventually Twitter's recommendations will start to favor the strong.
It's possible that more virulent strains of extremism will emerge and seize the high ground. But there also exists a small but emerging group of online thinkers who share jihadist political sympathies but lack blind enthusiasm for randomly targeting civilians.
These users -- who have the luxury to tweet without dodging drone strikes -- could shift the recommendations toward the "center" and shape the direction of the wider movement.
If that sounds like a long shot, it is.
In the short term, the actual negatives of Twitter's all-too-apt recommendations almost certainly outweigh any potential positives. Social media has opened the door to a new kind of evolution and we can't predict its ultimate direction. But the tradeoff clearly means making extremist ideologies more accessible than ever before.
And in the world of counterterrorism, "sit back and watch" is rarely a saleable policy prescription, even when it has merit. Twitter is likely to face growing pressure over the robust tools it provides to aspiring extremists.
In the past, the company has made a stand in favor of free speech and the airing of unpopular political views on its service. But it's a lot harder to defend its practice of proactively spoon-feeding encouragement to potentially violent users.