ISIS and Propaganda: How Should Social Networks Balance Free Speech and Security?

Should content from terrorist and hate groups permissible under free speech and because of its news value, or should networks like Twitter and Google ban what many consider propaganda?

Social media is probably the most open access communication tool we have developed to date. However, this level of access attracts all kinds: from regular users to terrorist groups attempting to recruit new members. Is this kind of content permissible under free speech doctrines and because of its news value, or should networks like Twitter and Google ban what many consider propaganda?

Victoria Grand, Google’s director of policy strategy, told The Washington Post in a recent interview that the company is aware of the problem of Islamic State content on their networks, but is not of the opinion that there should be an outright ban:

ISIS has been confronting us with these really inhumane and atrocious images, and there are some people who believe if you type ‘jihad’ or ‘ISIS’ on YouTube, you should get no results. We don’t believe that should be the case. […] The goal here is how do you strike a balance between enabling people to discuss and access information about ISIS, but also not become the distribution channel for their propaganda?

The issue with an outright ban, or some manner of shadowban or filtering system, is that many resources that are not propaganda could be swept up by detection methods. Additionally, as terrorists publicize their deeds on social media, they provide content with potential news value.

According to Andrew McLaughlin, a former Google executive and chief U.S. technology officer:

[A]n ISIS video of hostages being beheaded is both an act of propaganda and is itself a fact. And so if you’re a platform, you don’t want to suppress the facts. On the other hand, you don’t want to participate in advancing propaganda. And there is the conundrum.

In an age where everyone from reporters to consumers are using social media to keep track of the news, it could be disastrous to use brute force tactics to remove this content. According to The Washington Post, Facebook is removing this kind of content; however, after the Charlie Hebdo attack, Mark Zuckerberg noted that he wanted Facebook to remain free from interference from both governments and terrorists.

This same tension exists in relation to Twitter. Dick Costolo, the former Twitter CEO recently stated that government regulation of Twitter would be a threat to free speech, yet Twitter executives received death threats from Islamic State members after account deletions.

Those concerned with security, like the U.S. Army for example, have long feared the internet and its potential use as a tool for radicalization. However, we may be more informed by the internet than we have been in the past. There are bastions of hate all across the internet, and perhaps that fact should be reported, rather than hidden from the public record.

Readers: What do you feel sites like Twitter and Google should do about this content?

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.