When three teenage girls from Denver left their homes for an Islamic State camp in Syria two months ago, their parents — and the FBI — were quick to search social media for clues to their escape. And in the weeks since the girls were intercepted in Frankfurt and returned home, it’s become pretty clear that they were indeed radicalized and recruited online.
But while accounts of similar Western recruits have fingered major social networks like Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr, or popular messaging platforms like Kik, a report out from NPR claims another social network, Ask.fm, was actually the major force at play.
Which means Ask.fm — late of several recent cyberbullying and teen suicide scandals — may now officially qualify as the worst-reputed social network on earth. But don’t tell that to the site’s new owner, the blue-chip Internet company IAC: Ask.fm’s new owners are confident they can save the site, trolls and terrorists be damned.
“I absolutely believe rehabilitation is possible if you do the right thing,” said Doug Leeds, the site’s CEO. “There is that perception that [Ask.fm] is a parent’s worst nightmare … but safety is our first priority.”
Unfortunately for Leeds, that reputation has dogged Ask.fm since its beginning. The anonymous question-and-answer site — both a pioneer and an early warning, in the anonymous networking space — was founded in Latvia in 2010, and quickly grew to more than 100 million users in 150 countries. Its premise, both simple and mind-numbingly self-involved, is perfect for the teenage set: Essentially, when you log into Ask.fm, you’re greeted by a series of personal questions other users have left for you, with no indication of who wrote them or how they know you in real life.
You, in turn, get to pontificate to the anonymous masses on topics like “what do you do to fall asleep?” and “what’s the most delicious fruit?” — as well as, naturally, ask anonymous questions, yourself.
The problem, of course, is when users tire of mundane topics like sleeping and fruit and start to post other, darker questions. Like “why are you so ugly?” Or “why haven’t you died yet?” Or “do you know how I can join ISIS?” Tellingly, the first time Ask.fm ever appeared in the English media was in relation to the 2012 suicide of 15-year-old Ciara Pugsley.
“Last year we had never heard about Ask.fm,” an anti-bullying activist told Ireland’s Daily Mirror at the time, “but this year is is popping up everywhere … Now every school we visit mentions this website.”
In the year following Pugley’s death, no fewer than nine teenage suicides were linked to the site, including two in the U.S. In December 2012, 16-year-old Jessica Laney hanged herself after receiving a series of cruel messages and insults about her personal life. Less than a year later, 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick jumped from an abandoned cement silo in Lakeland, Fla., after receiving anonymous messages like “nobody cares about u” and “you seriously deserve to die.”
Ask.fm’s founders were originally pretty casual, even callous, about this kind of tragedy: blame your children, not the tool, is basically how Mark Terebin put it during the rash of suicides in early 2013. When the site was bought by blue chip Internet giant IAC last August, Terebin and his brother Ilya were unceremoniously pushed out. In their wake, the new Ask.fm doubled the size of its human moderation team, hired two senior safety officers — including Catherine Teitelbaum, the former head of global safety for Yahoo — and rolled out a range of new automated moderation tools that could flag questionable content even before users reported it.
“We looked at Ask.fm a long time” before buying it, Leeds said. “We were concerned, but we were also intrigued … The safety issues with Ask.fm are well-documented. So safety was our first priority.”
And yet, while Ask.fm may have rid itself of trolls, it now seems to face an even more dangerous predator. The Middle East Media Research Institute, a non-profit that monitors and translates Middle Eastern press, included Ask.fm in its recent list of social media companies “instrumental in spreading al-Qaeda’s ideologogy to the younger generation,” especially teenagers in the West. There are “hundreds, if not thousands” of jihadist accounts on Ask.fm, the report claims, which answer questions from people interested in joining their cause.
In Ask.fm’s defense, it’s by no means alone here: MEMRI’s report also singles out half a dozen other social networks, including Facebook and Twitter. But since half of Ask.fm’s users are under 18, it offers up a particularly vulnerable demographic to extremist recruiters in the Middle East.
“Hi Abu — how important is social media to ISIS?” One user asked an alleged British jihadist, going under the username Abu Abdullah.
“I think u know how important it is,” Abu Abdullah wrote back. “Its a valuable tool for recruitment if anyone wna join and to show the real ISIS.”
As if to prove Abu Abdullah’s claims, the three would-be teen jihadists from Denver apparently made extensive contact with Islamic State recruiters on Ask.fm, NPR reports. In fact, of all the social networks the girls used, it’s Ask.fm where their radicalization played out most clearly, says a report by SITE Intelligence Group, a company that tracks jihadists’ online activity.
At one point, SITE observed, an anonymous user asked one of the Denver girls how much she listened to music, and she said three hours a day. Months later, an anonymous user asked her favorite song to dance to — and she did a 180, saying “music is haram” (meaning sinful or forbidden). It was nothing that would have come up in a keyword filter — but concerning, all the same.
“It’s a really tough issue,” said Teitelbaum, the newly hired Chief of Trust & Safety. “The language itself is benign — the tone of the conversations is actually very casual. There’s very little reference to violence. It’s not like other areas of abuse.”
So Ask.fm has had to find different ways to confront it: the site very recently added an “extremism” category to its reporting tool, and it’s working more closely with law enforcement to identify and monitor potentially dangerous accounts. But still, despite all these efforts, it seems extremely difficult for Ask.fm to turn its image around. Nine teen suicides and three would-be terrorists? If that’s not a parent’s worst nightmare, I don’t know what is.
“This provides a social utility,” Leeds assures me. “This is an important part of people expressing themselves.”
But he really only needs to convince parents and politicians; clearly, with 180 million monthly users, he already has us kids.