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February 18, 2021 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 259

The Terrorism Disseminators Still On Twitter

February 18, 2021 | By Alberto M. Fernandez*
Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 259


 

With the banning of a sitting U.S. president and thousands of others, supposedly for reasons having to do with the 2020 U.S. elections and outlandish conspiracy theories, the power of "Big Tech," of social media companies, has never been so evident.

As many have pointed out, these are private companies who have – for now – every right to decide who can participate on their own platforms, based on their own subjective and opaque interpretation of their terms of service. It is a judgment call which can be questioned by critics but can't really be challenged even though it sometimes seems that the ultimate gauge of what passes muster are the worldviews of the Big Tech clerisy inside the bubble of California's Silicon Valley.

Social media companies, including Twitter, played a key role in the scope and spread of Salafi-jihadist groups like the so-called Islamic State or ISIS. When Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi declared himself Caliph in June 2014 after the fall of Mosul, ISIS was able to spread that message far and wide on social media, even though the group had been designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the State Department all the way back in 2004. It was only when the group began in August 2014 to post videos of the beheadings of Americans and increasingly mobilize young followers worldwide in multiple languages that Twitter and other companies took action to take down these accounts. The accounts that Twitter removed were some semi-official accounts but also a much larger number of informal promoters, amplifiers and enablers – ISIS trolls and "fan boys."[1] Big Tech did this to protect their corporate reputation in the face of rising anger by private citizens and a well-founded fear of government action.

The purging of ISIS fan boy propagandists seems to have been a one-off. While supporters of ISIS and Al-Qa'ida continue to have difficulties on social media, propagandists for other terrorist groups have a much easier time. The media outlets (Al-Ahd and Al-Etejah Television channels) of the Iraqi terrorist groups Kataib Hizbullah (an FTO since 2009) and Asaib Ahl Al-Haqq (an FTO since 2020) are on Twitter.[2] So is Qais Al-Khazali, the head of the latter organization.[3] Beyond these official accounts, there are hundreds of ordinary Iraqi accounts connected to Iranian-controlled Shia militias and death squads who not only amplify official propaganda but also serve as an electronic army used to threaten civil society members, muddy the waters after Iraqi activists and journalists are murdered, and propagate disinformation in the service of Iran and its local proxies. Twitter unconsciously played a very helpful role over the past few years in facilitating an ongoing campaign of intimidation in Arabic waged by Iran and its henchmen against Iraqi demonstrators, civil society and critics. The group credibly accused of assassinating Iraqi scholar Hisham Al-Hashemi has a media outlet (and many supporters) on Twitter.[4] 

The same toxic media environment is replicated in Lebanon. Here Twitter only suspended the accounts of Hizbullah's official channel, Al-Manar TV, in 2019 (Hizbullah has been an FTO since the beginning, in 1997).[5] It is still available elsewhere on Western platforms.[6] But also many Lebanese "journalists" connected to the same suspended outlet regurgitate its content with impunity.[7] Unofficial media allies and surrogates of Hizbullah like Al-Mayadeen TV and the newspaper Al-Akhbar are still available.[8] And, as in the case of Iraq, so are hundreds of "personal" accounts which aggressively disseminate Al-Manar TV content and Hizbullah talking points. The recent assassination of anti-Hizbullah activist Lokman Slim in Lebanon immediately led to an uptick in activity by these accounts which defamed the murder victim, threatened others in Lebanon as possible next victims, and promoted false narratives in the service of Hizbullah. These accounts function precisely like those of ISIS fan boys, taking the lead from the official organization and amplifying its scope and venom. And like ISIS, they have also weaponized companies' terms of service to remove their adversaries' content.[9]

One example of many is Multaqa Al-Alam A-Muqawim (Resistance Media Forum).[10] I have chosen it not because it is significant but because it is typical of many of these accounts although with over 4,000 followers it is much larger than most other pro-Hizbullah trolls. Supposedly dating from July 2017, the account really sprang into action in November 2020. One of the calumnies against Slim was that he was bought by the Americans and here in the wake of his murder, the account makes a similar connection with other Lebanese journalists supposedly "at the service" of the U.S. Embassy.

The account and others like it had slick graphic and video content on Slim and on other targeted individuals ready to go within hours and days of the assassination. If ISIS online content was meant to terrify adversaries and recruit followers, the content spread by such Arabic-language Iranian death-squad fan boys is meant to terrify adversaries and to glorify Hizbullah and the Iranian leadership. And just like ISIS, the pro-Iranian terrorist group media amplifiers launch hashtag campaigns to raise awareness and intimidate adversaries. On February 9, 2021, these Lebanese accounts launched a campaign against Lebanese journalists who had dared to criticize Hizbullah (both those criticizing Hizbullah in general but more specifically criticizing it for the killing of Slim, who had himself been part of a similar campaign years ago) under the slogan "The Despicable Press at the Order of the [American] Embassy."[11] This is a chilling, targeted message coming from partisans of a group that has been credibly accused of killing, with complete impunity, prominent journalists like Samir Kassir and Gibran Tueni, among others.

Why does Twitter allow some terrorism disseminators and ban others? Why silence Al-Manar and Hizbullah while allowing propagandists disseminating their message to work freely? Why does it allow supporters of terrorist groups to threaten journalists and civil society in Lebanon and Iraq? If the ISIS pattern of removal was followed, there would be no difference made between official accounts, semi-official accounts and those supposedly from unaffiliated amateurs. All would have been removed.

It is, of course, galling that the bar seems to be lower for Trump and QAnon than it is for Hizbullah and Kataib Hizbullah but that is a grim reality. And perhaps that is also a possible explanation. The killing of activists in the Arab world by groups with robust online networks is of relatively little importance to American social media companies because these are foreigners and most of the action is occurring in Arabic. When it comes to these groups, Twitter is at the same stage where it was in 2013-2014 when ISIS was only a curse and a plague to people in the region who wrote and spoke in squiggly lines unknown in Silicon Valley. Unless if this becomes a domestic issue, in English, an issue involving corporate reputations, or a concern expressed by Western governments to social media companies, Twitter and friends will look the other way. Because they can.

   

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.

 

[1] Buzzfeednews.com/article/sheerafrenkel/meet-the-isis-fanboys-spreading-the-message-of-iraqs-most-fe, June 16, 2014.

[2] Americaabroadmedia.org/screen-buzz-workshops/al-%E2%80%98ahd-radical-shi%E2%80%99ite-islamist-channel-iraq-controlled-iran-backed-militia, accessed February 16, 2021.

[3] Twitter.com/Qais_alkhazali.

[4] Pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/shia-militia-kataib-hezbollah-behind-hisham-al-hashimi-murder-iraqi-counterterrorism-expert, February 9, 2021.

[5] English.alarabiya.net/media/digital/2019/11/02/Hezbollah-TV-channel-Al-Manar-says-Twitter-accounts-suspended, May 20, 2020.

[7] Twitter.com/bilalalzein1

[8] Twitter.com/alakhbarnews?lang=en

[9] Twitter.com/GinoRaidy/status/1361815012596137985

[10] Twitter.com/2e3lammk2020

[11] Twitter.com/hashtag/%D8%A5%D8%B9%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%85_%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AD%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%A9_%D8%A8%D8%A3%D9%8E%D9%85%D8%B1_%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D9%81%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%A9?src=hashtag_click

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