Watch What You Tweet

Oakland Strives for Privacy
April 6, 2015
Elsa Lakew
Elsa Lakew – April 2015
April 8, 2015

Members of Congress and the Department of Justice don’t see eye to eye on the use of social media by suspected terrorists. At a January hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on terrorism, Representative Ted Poe (R-Tex.) was angry over the number of ISIS-supporter accounts on Twitter and insisted that the company be charged with material support for terrorism if it didn’t delete them.

But the Department of Justice and the FBI (and even the Mall of America) have generally preferred to engage with people on social media, rather than censor them. In recent weeks and months, the news has been full of stories of tweeting Americans being hauled in by the FBI. Usually, the FBI relies on paid informants or undercover agents to cajole, finance, or otherwise move a terror plot along.

On Friday, prospective Attorney General Loretta Lynch was at a press conference announcing the arrest of two Queens women on terror charges. It seems that social-media activity by one of the women tipped off the FBI. In 2013, the bureau dispatched an undercover agent, but even with over a year of nurturing, there didn’t seem to be much of a plot at all. The complaint relies on the women’s social-media activity and Internet use to create probable cause for their arrest. The Feds also announced another arrest based in large part on social-media activity, in Philadelphia. Keonna Thomas was charged with attempting to provide material support to a known terrorist group.

At least from what we can tell from the complaint, no informant or undercover agent was involved. She came to the attention of the FBI in 2013 when she retweeted a “a photograph of a young male child wearing firearm magazine pouches and camouflage attire, with the following caption: “Ask yourselves, while this young man is holding magazines for the Islamic state, what are you doing for it? #1S1S.” The criminal complaint itemizes 30 actions Thomas undertook that indicate her attempt to provide support to ISIS, of which 24 were retweets or tweets. The six other indications involve her buying a plane ticket to Spain and getting a visa to travel to Turkey. That’s a lot of reliance on tweets to arrest someone.