Why aren't Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube doing more to keep ISIS from spreading hatred and violence on social media?

Shortly after fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) seized Iraq's second-largest city of Mosul earlier this month, the group's Twitter feed was suddenly suspended by the company. For ISIS, which has come to depend upon social media as a propaganda outlet and a recruitment tool, a useless Twitter account could have been a significant strategic setback. But within the past few days, the jihadist group has come back online with a new account that Twitter hasn't touched, leaving ISIS to spread images of its conquest of broad swaths of Iraq with impunity, analysts say.

Twitter's uneven success -- some say unwillingness -- in battling ISIS underscores the difficulties social media companies are having in stopping jihadist groups from glorifying their exploits and spreading their ideology via the Internet. Despite attempts by the Iraqi government to block access to popular social media services and enforce an Internet service blackout in provinces held by ISIS, the group has been able to tweet invective, post videos of mass killings to YouTube, and spread messages to followers on Facebook, analysts say. And there's little the companies can do to stop them.

Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are ISIS and other extremists' platforms of choice and the most widely used social media systems in the world. But none of those companies proactively monitor their users' accounts for terrorist propaganda that might violate their terms of service, including the very photos, videos, and rhetoric ISIS is posting, company representatives said. To do so is practically impossible, they say, because there's simply too much information to review. Facebook users post 300 million new photographs every day. On YouTube, users upload 100 new hours of video every hour. And on a typical day, people send more than 500 million tweets, an average of 5,700 per second.

"It's absolutely Whac-A-Mole," said David Belson, editor of the State of the Internet Report, published by web services company Akamai Technologies, which monitors Internet access around the world and has followed social media companies' attempts to rid their platforms of terrorist propaganda.

To get the social media companies to remove material or suspend accounts, users have to flag specific content that may violate the companies' rules on what's permissible to post. For ISIS, that means content that violates Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter's prohibitions against the actual depiction of violence or making physical threats against others -- and there's plenty of it. The group has posted gruesome videos of mass killings and images of ISIS fighters overrunning Iraqi military positions and commandeering equipment. It has also used social media to encourage attacks on targets in the West.

Spokespersons at Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter all said that videos, photos, or messages showing ISIS attacks or glorifying them violate company standards and have been removed after being flagged by other users. But the companies don't keep track of how often that's happening, which makes it effectively impossible to gauge how well their efforts to combat jihadist rhetoric -- such as they are -- actually are working.

"If you promote ISIS or their activity, we will take down that content," said an employee at one social media company who asked not to be identified when discussing the particular steps it takes to block the terrorist group. The employee emphasized that debating ISIS's actions or engaging in a conversation about the legitimacy of its goals wouldn't automatically trigger a response by the company. "Lots of people are making comments about ISIS, and some are arguing that the group is making valid points. That's an opinion," the employee said, and not necessarily an endorsement of ISIS's actions. "But if you say that you support ISIS and what they're doing, or that you hope they can recruit more followers, we will take down that content."

Not everyone wants them to. A senior intelligence official said that ISIS is "very active on social media," and that U.S. intelligence analysts "rely very heavily on what the group is posting" to provide insights about its plans and potential next steps. A second U.S. official said that while the intelligence agencies rely on many streams of intelligence, social media was an important one for assessing ISIS's "motivations and their actions." For U.S. intelligence agencies now trying to track ISIS's next move in Iraq, in advance of possible airstrikes, the group's violent tweets and videos may be too useful to shut down.

Still, the social media companies say they are trying to do just that. Inside Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter's offices, teams of analysts -- which can include linguists -- review every piece of content flagged by users as potentially violating the rules. It doesn't matter if a video, photo, or tweet is flagged once or a hundred times -- each one gets reviewed. Representatives for Facebook and YouTube said the employees who review potentially violent content work in 24-hour shifts. "We have a team of professional investigators both here in the U.S. and abroad who enforce these rules," a Facebook spokesman said. "Where hateful content is posted and reported, Facebook removes it and disables accounts of those responsible."

Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter now keep track of so-called "repeat offenders," or users who post offensive content from multiple accounts, including new ones they set up quickly after being kicked off. YouTube will also "terminate any account registered by a member of a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization and used in an official capacity to further its interests," said a company spokesperson. (ISIS is one such organization, as defined by the State Department.) But the company doesn't disclose who those users are. All three companies said they wouldn't comment on individual users whose accounts were suspended or who were flagged for posting violent content.

Governments do ask social media companies to remove some content, and in some cases they demand it. Facebook, for instance, has blocked access in Germany to material that denies the existence of the Holocaust, which is a federal crime there. Every six months, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook disclose the number of times that governments request or require that information be removed. But the companies say they don't keep track of whether the offending material was linked to a terrorist group. In any event, it appears that most of government requests are to remove material considered defamatory to that country's political figures or elected officials.

Terrorists and extremists have been crowing about their exploits and recruiting on social media for years, and social media companies have been battling them for just as long, with limited success. In December 2012, Facebook suspended the account of Umar Media, the Pakistani Taliban's media arm, because it violated the company's rules against promoting terrorism, but a new account was back up within two weeks. The following month, Twitter suspended al-Shabab's account after the group posted a video threatening to kill two Kenyan hostages, violating Twitter's prohibition on violent threats. That did nothing to dent al-Shabab's relentless use of the platform; seven months later, the group was live-tweeting its rampage in the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.

The Westgate shooting was a rare instance in which a social media company actively hunted for a terrorist group's accounts and suspended them. Largely assisted by an independent terrorism analyst, J. M. Berger, Twitter suspended account after account used by al-Shabab to tweet about the mayhem in the mall. And those efforts were apparently successful: After several accounts were suspended, al-Shabab seemed to relent and didn't return to gloat about the shootings.

"After Westgate, Twitter decimated al-Shabab's online networks, including suspending a lot of low-profile accounts that didn't make headlines," Berger said. But in Iraq, with ISIS, the company hasn't been nearly as aggressive. "Twitter remains the most difficult place to get knocked offline, although it has become somewhat more aggressive in recent months," Berger said. "Facebook has been very robust for some time in trying to deal with jihadi content, and they appear to be proactive in going after terrorist accounts. YouTube has a robust reporting system [among its users] which works OK, some of the time."

But the odds are stacked against the companies. The sheer volume of posts and the ease of opening a new account virtually guarantee that ISIS and its ilk can mount their campaigns without obstruction. And absent pressure from the United States to crack down on ISIS's tweets and Facebook updates about its attacks in Iraq, it's hard to imagine the company doing much more than it is now to stop the jihadist group.

"I'm not sure exactly where companies should draw the line, but I think it should be tighter than it is now," Berger said. "We have situations where foreign fighters are encouraging lone wolf attacks in the West, Twitter feeds are being used to herald insurgent attacks and intimidate populations, and images of violence are so widespread that they depress even me, and I have developed a pretty strong stomach for this stuff."



Through Syria, Darkly

Will Assad agree to a political solution? Can ISIS be defeated? A sobering report from the latest PeaceGame.

Peace will come to Syria slowly and only after much greater violence, participants predicted grimly at the second-ever PeaceGame, co-sponsored by Foreign Policy and the United States Institute of Peace in Abu Dhabi on June 18-19. In the meantime, given the protracted conflict's disastrous spread into Iraq, the most realistic positive developments may be limited to international cooperation to provide humanitarian relief and counter extremists from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Despite an estimated 160,000 casualties since 2011 and at least 6.5 million people displaced from their homes, external intervention at a level sufficient to force the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to the negotiating table appear unlikely in the foreseeable future.  

Despite the event's focus on finding creative paths for conflict resolution, the PeaceGame's efforts to identify a political settlement repeatedly stalemated -- just as efforts have done in reality. Progress proved elusive in the absence of significant changes to the Assad regime's ability to hold territory or the level of pressure external actors would be willing to exact. With the spread of ISIS extremists across northern Syria and Iraq and the devolution of Iraq and Libya into ever greater levels of chaos, participants underscored a growing fear in the region that whatever would replace Assad would be even worse. Meanwhile, moderate opposition forces in Syria have lost regional support due to perceptions of division and weakness.

Participants in the most recent PeaceGame came from across the Middle East, as well as the United States and Europe. They were tasked with finding the best peace possible for Syria, echoing the PeaceGame's mission to take peace seriously as a policy option and to devise realistic strategies to achieve it. The PeaceGame was developed as a counterpoint to the far more prevalent phenomenon of war games, which understandably privilege the threat or use of violence as an instrument of policy.

The mood was far darker than at the inaugural PeaceGame, held in Washington, D.C. in December 2013. Though concern for humanitarian suffering was high in both games, participants at the earlier event saw far more paths out of the conflict and far more international pressure for Assad to step down, even if his regime survived. At the June PeaceGame, in contrast, participants rued how much discussions focused on the use of force, since so many other options have now been eclipsed. Regional actors struggled to find ways to negotiate a political settlement that would resolve the conflict more fundamentally, choosing instead to address the immediate security threat posed by ISIS extremists and the staggering levels of humanitarian suffering.

Unlike the outcomes of December's PeaceGame, written up in a debrief published by Foreign Policy, the shape of a best possible peace had grown worse and the opportunities for progress were narrower.

Participants did identify two important opportunities for action: one tactical and one strategic.  At the tactical level, they saw realistic opportunities to implement United Nations Security Council Resolution 2139, passed unanimously in February 2014, which demands that all parties allow unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance and enable the evacuation of all civilians who wish to leave. Given the existing Security Council resolution and continuing levels of human suffering, PeaceGame participants imagined that a coalition of states -- potentially including nearby Arab states, Turkey, Iran, and Russia -- could put enough pressure on the Syrian regime to allow limited access for the purposes of humanitarian aid delivery. To avoid attack by either party and defend against attacks by ISIS, participants suggested that both the regime and opposition groups serve as escorts. Because aid delivery already has a Security Council endorsement, defense of a humanitarian mission is legally justified under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, participants argued.

The key question is which states would have the will to use force to defend such a mission, rather than the legal mandate to do so. As in the last PeaceGame, Iran emerged as a lynchpin, uniquely able to put pressure on the Assad regime.

Such piecemeal acts of humanitarian assistance delivery could create momentum for further cooperation and lay the foundation for more ambitious steps down the road, PeaceGame participants hoped. Though big-picture strategies to resolve the conflict are more appealing in principle, participants viewed progress on more ambitious approaches as unlikely, so long as the Assad regime believes it is winning on the battlefield and regional actors continue to fear the consequences of regime change.

Achieving the access necessary to deliver humanitarian assistance has been challenging because it is closely linked to control of territory and populations. Indeed, the Syrian regime stands accused of cynically using starvation and attacks on aid workers as weapons of war. PeaceGame participants speculated that if humanitarian assistance could be delinked even partially from politics, more suffering could be alleviated. However, participants also noted how difficult this could prove to be.

The second opportunity results from the rapid advance of ISIS, which continues to gain ground in Iraq and advance its mission of creating a large territory spanning the width of the Levant and governed by extreme Islamist tenets. According to PeaceGame participants, the threat could be sufficiently severe to motivate action by an unlikely coalition of neighboring Arab states, Turkey, the United States, Russia, Europe, and Iran -- all of which fear an extremist haven that could export violence and vitriolic ideologies across borders and even oceans. The prevalence of foreign fighters, numbering more than 10,000 by some estimates and including hundreds or even thousands with Western passports, is further cause for concern, particularly given ISIS's wealth and ability to generate its own resources through a diversified portfolio of illicit activities, ranging from kidnapping to trafficking.

The rising threat of ISIS created the biggest potential for real change in the Syria crisis, in the eyes of PeaceGame participants, who believed that the group's aggression might be enough to provoke action. With the Syrian crisis at a stalemate, participants speculated that ISIS might unite regional actors and the international community and lead them to address the threat with the seriousness it deserved, through unilateral efforts to cut access to funding, attacks on supply lines, and the direct or indirect use of military force. (Ironically, participants saw the use of force as essential to peace given that no other method was unlikely to influence a group as extreme as ISIS, and one so dismissive of international norms and institutions.) Because regional states have the most to lose from ISIS's advance, PeaceGame participants also envisioned a willingness of states in the region to play larger leadership roles than they have been willing to play so far in the Syrian crisis.

If the region is successful in reducing the threat posed by ISIS, this could once again create an opening for a political settlement in Syria down the road. In the meantime, Syria's fragility gives Assad strength by encouraging support from his friends and paralyzing his enemies. Both groups now fear that a weakened Assad regime would only further embolden ISIS.

Three casualties of the "best possible peace" envisioned at the PeaceGame stand out. The first is the Syrian people, who have already suffered far too much violence and displacement from their homes. The second is the Iraqi people, who face the possibility of a second major civil war in their homeland. The third is the norms of warfare, which have limited the use of armed force and protected civilians for centuries. That a "best possible peace" would still have so many victims was a depressing, tragic, and sometimes infuriating commentary on how dire the situation in Syria has become and how much violence it has spawned.

Striving to find glimmers of hope, PeaceGame participants called for policymakers to prepare more seriously for the long term, since prospects for peace in the short term are elusive. Participants underscored that the Syrian and Iraq conflicts (arguably, now blended) have already shifted markedly and are likely to do so again. Policymakers should prepare now for the eventual shifts and try to shape them as much as possible. 

Most importantly, policymakers worldwide should take steps that could help to prevent Syria from becoming a true failed state -- an ungoverned Arab version of Somalia, stretching across the region and exporting chaos -- in the longer term. These steps include:

  • Cultivating leaders outside the formal regime to the extent possible, including those in civil society, the diaspora, and refugee camps;
  • Countering sectarianism, particularly through the engagement of religious leaders, which will undermine all future efforts at peace unless addressed;
  • Countering violent extremist ideologies and reducing the flow of recruits to ISIS;
  • Providing the necessary services to Syrian refugees, which now constitute 20 percent of Lebanon's total population and nearly 10 percent of Jordan's population;
  • Finding creative means to educate Syria's children who are the future of the country.

We attribute the dark overall tone of this most recent PeaceGame to a lack of clear options for how to get to a better future. This lack of vision was profoundly disheartening but also understandable. The Middle East is now more volatile than any time in recent memory, and the international means to manage conflicts are weaker than they have been for decades. The absence of global leadership and strong institutions is creating a void that extremists are rushing to fill.

If there was a glimmer of hope at the PeaceGame it was this: Both awareness of the threat posed by ISIS  and the willingness of states to address it are rising. We are all fumbling in the dark right now. But the hope is that, once we better understand the outlines of the threat and its consequences, those who want peace will be willing to work for it.

Kristin Lord is acting president of the U.S. Institute of Peace. David Rothkopf is CEO of Foreign Policy.