Trending: Social Media as Material Support for Terrorism

Constitution in Crisis :: BORDC February 2015 Newsletter
February 26, 2015
Eric Juth
Eric Juth – March 2015
March 1, 2015


ISIS is winning the Internet! Conventional wisdom has it that the terrorist group is brilliant at using social media to spread its message and recruit adherents. That troubles lawmakers and national security officials. Social media is a “free form of communication that you can use to plot and plan. A new way to propagandize and reach individuals… in their home,” John Carlin, assistant attorney general for national security told a cybersecurity conference last Monday, Feb. 23. At a House terrorism subcommittee hearing last month, members wrestled with the problem of countering ISIS propaganda on social media without infringing on First Amendment rights.

Representative Ted Poe (R-Texas), who chairs the committee, asked why the Department of Justice couldn’t use material support laws (which prohibit giving assistance to terrorist groups) to go after Twitter and other social-media sites that allow terrorist groups to use their services. No one could give Poe a firm answer at the hearing, but Carlin waded into the fray on Monday while answering questions at the cybersecurity conference. He indicated that the Department of Justice could use material-support laws to go after those who spread ISIS propaganda on social media. “We have and will charge under our criminal-justice system,” he said.

While Carlin seemed ready to prosecute individuals under the theory that some sort of technical expertise is involved in retweeting and liking, Representative Poe wants the Department of Justice to go after Twitter itself. He took to the floor on Feb. 24 to speak on the issue:

Mr. Speaker, during World War II, we never would have allowed America’s foreign enemies to take out ads in The New York Times recruiting Americans to join the Nazis and go abroad and fight and kill Americans. Today is no different. Social-media companies need to do more. Private companies not only have a public responsibility, but a legal obligation to be proactive. Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act states that it is unlawful to provide a designated foreign terrorist organization–like ISIS–with “material support or resources,” including “any property, tangible or intangible, or services.” That is about as comprehensive as you can get. You don’t need to be a law-school professor to understand this law actually applies to Twitter. It is mind-boggling to think that those who behead and burn others alive are able to use our own companies against us to further their cause. This is nutty. But that is exactly what is occurring. As a result, there are more than 15,000 foreign fighters, many of whom have been radicalized online, now fighting in Iraq and Syria. That is more than there were in the 14 years of war in Afghanistan. Designated foreign terrorist organizations should not be allowed to use private American companies to reach billions of people with their violent hate propaganda and recruitment. It is time to put a stop to this. It is time for Twitter to take down terrorists’ accounts. And that is just the way it is.



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