Can Twitter censor the Israel Defense Forces?

November 15, 2012

Israel's Iron Dome defense system fires to intercept incoming missiles from Gaza in the port town of Ashdod. (AP Photo /Tsafrir Abayov)

Israel made history Wednesday when it began live-tweeting its own strike on the Gaza Strip. Now that the initial shock is over, the questions are setting in: Are governments allowed to use Twitter that way? And even if they can, should they?

A rumor widely circulated Thursday morning claimed that the Israel Defense Forces' Twitter account, @IDFSpokesperson, went down for a 40-minute period, but neither Twitter nor the reporter who first broke the story, Daily Dot’s Kris Holt, have definitively confirmed that the account was suspended. A parody account, @IDFspokesman, was definitely taken down.  

Reports have also claimed that Youtube is suspending videos from the IDF’s official channel, but one video that was "removed mistakenly" was reinstated by the site within hours, according to All Things Digital.

Users have seized on phrasing in both Facebook and Youtube’s terms of service as reasons for the alleged suspensions. Twitter does not allow users to post “direct, specific threats of violence against others,” and Youtube bans both threats and “graphic or gratuitous violence.” @IDFSpokesperson famously (or infamously) sent a tweet Wednesday warning Hamas leaders to hide, and its Youtube channel includes footage of Israeli attacks in the Gaza Strip.

The big irony here is that for all of the power of militaries like the IDF, and for all the savvy of their social media campaigns, governments still must abide by the same terms of service as ordinary users. It’s humbling that military communications have to adhere to the same rules meant for regular civilian users, and it's a reminder of the nastiness of war that so much war-related social media potentially bumps up against terms of service. It also represents a fascinating, social-media-age inversion between the censor and the censored; governments and militaries, the bodies that usually police speech, are now at risk of being constrained, themselves.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Max Fisher | November 15, 2012