Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy speech Thursday wasn’t exactly packed with specific strategies to defeat the Islamic State. But the Democratic presidential front-runner did offer this highly targeted approach:
Boom. Just shut it down. And do it swiftly.
On the surface, this sounds like a common-sense proposal. Social media is an important part of the Islamic State’s propaganda machine. When the group claimed responsibility for last week’s attacks on Paris, it did so on Twitter. Islamic State members routinely use social media to exchange instructions and recruit new members.
But weeding out terrorist accounts is no easy task. Computer programs that look for suspicious keywords ("ISIS," for example) can’t do the job perfectly. It’s difficult to separate people who support the Islamic State from those who are simply talking about the Islamic State — or even people who are named Isis.
Yes, Facebook inadvertently suspended the account of a San Francisco engineer named Isis Anchalee this week. She wasn’t thrilled.
A Facebook employee ultimately reached out to Anchalee on Twitter and got her back online.
But the episode illustrates the technical challenges involved here.
“The problem is, ‘How do you identify what is actual terrorist activity and what isn’t?’ ” said Charles Wiseman, a computer science professor at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston. “There’s no way to objectively, easily do that. You’d need someone with an intimate understanding of how terrorist groups work, and social media companies don’t have that kind of expertise.”
Twitter declined to comment on Clinton’s remarks. Facebook responded in a statement:
There is no place for terrorists on Facebook. We work aggressively to ensure that we do not have terrorists or terror groups using the site, and we also remove any content that praises or supports terrorism. We have a community of more than 1.5 billion people who are very good at letting us know when something is not right. We make it easy for them to flag content for us, and they do. We have a global team responding to those reports around the clock, and we prioritize any safety-related report, including any terrorism-related reports, for immediate review.
Besides the fact that spotting and closing terrorist accounts is just plain hard to do, it’s also unclear whether the strategy — even if perfectly executed — would actually help foil Islamic State plots.
“ISIS is a creative, adaptive foe,” said John Horgan, who studies terrorist behavior at Georgia State’s Global Studies Institute. “They are streets ahead of us, and they’ll just find another platform. When we shut that platform down, they’ll pop up elsewhere. It’s typical of both our thinking and response in general that we take this ‘quick fix’ approach.”
“At the end of the day,” Horgan added, “it’s about making us feel like we’re doing something, rather than tackling the problem in a systematic way.”