The Obama administration is sending mixed messages over Twitter's emerging terrorism problem — how to deal with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and other extremist groups that use the social media giant's open platform to incite violence and attacks.
Outside groups keeping a close watch on recent jihadist threats over the July 4 holiday and throughout the month of Ramadan argue that Twitter is not moving quickly and aggressively enough to block tweets and shut down the accounts of Islamic extremists spewing hatred, violence and even calls for specific attacks.
Twitter has defended its record and methods of attempting to shut down terrorist-affiliated accounts, alternating its arguments between defending freedom of expression and the difficulty of managing an open site with 280 million users and one billion tweets a day.
The White House is largely backing up those arguments, telling the Washington Examiner this week that it is mostly fine with how swiftly Twitter and other social media sites are moving to block jihadists recruiting and hate-filled propaganda on the their platforms.
"We are in touch with these companies on a regular basis and have a constant, constructive dialogue on the question of freedom of expression versus security and incitement," National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey told the Examiner. Noting Twitter's protocols and terms of agreement for removing content, Baskey said the White House is "generally satisfied with how these companies comply with these procedures and with their willingness to discuss the matter with concerned parties."
But that downplayed statement appears to contradict FBI Director James Comey's incredibly colorful and detailed warnings about Twitter's terrorism problem Wednesday before Senate Judiciary Committee. Comey said the Islamic State is routinely and easily using Twitter and mobile-encryption applications to recruit tens of thousands of new followers and issue kill orders to them.
The Islamic State, Comey said, is a nimble, social-media savvy foe that uses Twitter as its go-to propaganda platform to incite jihad in Syria, Iraq, Africa, Europe and the United States.
"ISIL is totally different," he said, referring to another name for the Islamic State. "ISIL is reaching out primarily through Twitter to about 21,000-now English language followers."
"There's a group of tweeters in Syria, and their message is two pronged: Come to the so-called caliphate and live the life of some sort of glory or something, and if you can't come, kill somebody where you are. Kill somebody in uniform, kill anybody, if you can cut their head off, great. Videotape it. Do it, do it, do it," he said. "They're pushing this through Twitter."
It's no longer the case, Comey said, that someone who is troubled or disaffected needs to go seek out terrorist propaganda and a motivation.
"It buzzes in their pocket," he said. "So there is a device, almost a devil on their shoulder all day long, saying: Kill, kill, kill, kill."
Comey said the jihadists have found many willing parties in the United States through Twitter, and the FBI has opened investigation into "people consuming this stuff" in all 50 states.
Once the extremist recruiters have engaged in an open-source dialogue like Twitter with them, they then take their conversations to mobile applications that are end-to-end encrypted and tell them, "contact me here." At that point, they disappear from law enforcement's reach, Comey lamented.
So far, Comey said the FBI is stopping "these things" through "tremendous hard work, the use of sources, and the use of undercover" identities.
"But it is incredibly difficult," he said. "I cannot see me stopping these indefinitely."
Counter-terrorism groups have pointed to a late June call for attacks during Ramadan from the spokesman for the Islamic State, Muhammed al-Adnani, as the latest example of how the Islamic State is weaponizing Twitter.
The Counter Extremism Project, a nonprofit formed to combat the threat from extremist ideologies, has an ongoing social media campaign using the hashtag #CEPDigitaldisruption to try to track, target and shut down hundreds of Twitter and Facebook accounts.
The group argues it has tried to engage Twitter, but the company has been "dismissive to the point of dereliction," according to CEP CEO Mark Wallace.
In the face of so much terrorist activity on Twitter, Wallace said he disturbed that the White House seems satisfied with the company's track record of blocking the material.
"Just this week, the FBI Director equated Twitter to a recruitment tool for extremists that sits on their shoulder like the devil, inviting them all day long to kill. It is therefore puzzling how anyone could be 'generally satisfied' with Twitter's response," Wallace said.
"Until more comprehensive and immediate action is taken, no one should be satisfied with Twitter's response to those who are weaponizing social media to incite violence," he added.
The White House has worked with Twitter and other tech firms to try to counter extremists efforts to spread their message, recruit and fundraise on social media. But, at least publicly so far, President Obama and his administration seems more focused on using social media to try to counter these online messages rather than shut out the jihadists from any particular platform.
Part of the federal government's strategy is organizing "technology camps" to encourage social media companies to work with governments, religious leaders and other concerned parties to create digital content to combat terrorist propaganda.
The White House earlier this year also launched a "peer-to-peer challenge" to encourage college kids in the United States, Middle East and other countries, but so far the effort seems to have gained little traction.
"We can help Muslim entrepreneurs and youths work with the private sector to develop social media tools to counter extremist narratives on the Internet," Obama wrote in an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times back in February.
The White House also invited Twitter, Google and Facebook to attend a three-day summit on countering violent extremism from terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda, and has tried to work with the companies to flag terrorist material on their platforms.
"We don't tell the companies what to do, but sometimes we will bring material to their attention that violates their use standards and encourage them to comply with their own policies," a senior administration official told the Examiner.
Still, the official hinted that Twitter needs to do more to combat the problem – albeit without any government pressure or intrusion. "We would expect that companies that are being used by ISIL or other designated foreign terrorist organizations would proactively seek to self-correct that problem," the official said.
The sheer volume of messages and posts presents a particularly vexing problem for Twitter and other more open platforms, as does the ability for the jihadists to change their accounts by just one initial or number and spring back into their online jihad.
The gunmen involved in the Garland, Texas shooting at the Prophet Mohammed cartoon contest in early May were in regular Twitter contact with Abu Husain Al Britani, a prolific British extremist affiliated with the Islamic State.
In addition, 10 days before the attack, a Somali American Islamic extremist Twitter recruiter who uses a form of the name Mujahi Miski for his Twitter accounts praised the January shootings at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris and called on jihadists in the United States to follow suit.
"The brothers from Charlie Hebdo attack did their part," he wrote. "It's time for brothers in the #US to do their part."
The FBI has been tracking Miski for years and Twitter has shut down his account several times only to have it spring back up with a similar sounding moniker. Twitter closed the latest version of his account after the attacks had occurred.