Report for DHS Warns That Booting Extremists Off Twitter Might Upset Them

Kicking U.S.-based ISIS supporters off social media could provoke them to engage in lone-wolf attacks, according to an “analytic exercise” assessing “possible future developments" related to the group's messaging.

Kicking U.S.-based ISIS supporters off social media could provoke them to engage in lone-wolf attacks, according to a report prepared for the Department of Homeland Security and obtained by The Intercept.

“If social media activity is disrupted — for example, through targeted and sustained account suspensions by the hosting companies — lone offender attacks may become more likely as law enforcement pressure could cause some U.S.-based individuals to mobilize on their own, in an attempt to avoid disruption,” says the report, issued in May by a group of regional anti-terrorism centers.

Here is an excerpt of the report, which is titled “Field Analysis Report: (U//FOUO) Assessing ISIL’s Influence and Perceived Legitimacy In The Homeland: A State And Local Perspective.” (It refers to ISIS, or the Islamic State, as ISIL):

But take that conclusion with a grain of salt. The footnote indicated by the asterisk there reads: “This forward-looking assessment of possible future developments related to ISIL messaging is based on an analytic exercise conducted by State and Local Fusion Center intelligence and law enforcement personnel, and moderated by Intelligence Community tradecraft experts provided by DHS & I&A” — that last one presumably being the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis.

An “analytic exercise” could easily be a bunch of people sitting around, speculating in the absence of facts about things they don’t really know about. And fusion centers, the notoriously inept entities established around the country by the Bush administration after 9/11, are particularly suspect. The centers were ostensibly intended to help local, state and federal authorities share information about public threats. Repeated studies of fusions center, including a particularly devastating 2012 Senate report, have found them to be useless, wasteful and intrusive.

Typically, the argument about keeping terrorists online versus booting them off is about whether the value of being able to monitor them for important information about radicalization and attack-planning exceeds the danger they will radicalize susceptible people into taking action those people wouldn’t otherwise take.

FBI Director James Comey has described radical Twitter users as the “devil” on people’s shoulders who “all day long [is] saying ‘Kill, kill, kill, kill.’” But, as he explained during a July 9 press conference, “There’s actually a discussion within the counterterrorism community about whether it makes sense to shut down Twitter accounts affiliated with terrorist organizations or to allow them to operate as a way to gather intelligence.”

Several lawmakers have urged social media companies to remove terrorist content or report it directly to the government. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., got a provision inserted into the Senate’s intelligence authorization bill approved on July 7 that would force all social media companies to directly report every instance of “terrorist activity” they become aware of. However, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., blasted the provision in a statement on Monday, saying that tech companies are understandably baffled by the vague, impossible and seemingly useless requirement.

Groups like former Bush aide Fran Townsend’s Counter Extremism Project work to shame Twitter into purging ISIS supporters from the Twitterverse. State Department officials and others say ISIS’ social media message is powerful, and hard to contradict at times, as it appeals to disenfranchised people all over the world.

DHS spokesperson S.Y. Lee declined to comment on the report’s conclusion. A spokesperson for the Delaware Information and Analysis Center, listed as the lead source of the report, did not respond to a request for comment.

Intercept reporter Jana Winter contributed to this story.

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