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Banning Islamic State Jihadists From Twitter Is Like Playing Whack-a-Mole

They're just coming right back with new profiles.
Image: Twitter

A quick look at some of the Islamic State-linked accounts I follow on Twitter after yesterday's devastating news, and I'm getting a lot of this:

Beginning earlier this week, Twitter started shutting down the profiles of online IS fighters posting pictures of their exploits. By Wednesday night, after the gruesome and brutal murder of an innocent American journalist was made a spectacle by IS and their fanboys, the posting of beheadings and violent acts had reached a fever pitch.


But bans were already trickling down. I reached out to a Canadian fighter by the nom de guerre Abu Turaab al-Kanadi ("the Canadian") on Monday, to see what the reaction was among online IS fighters. He'd been booted from Twitter, which I asked him about on Kik messenger. He was very blunt as to what solicited the hand of Twitter officials.

"Probably the severed heads," al-Kanadi said, adding that he was not offered any warning emails or an explanation from Twitter as to why his account was suspended.

But al-Kanadi didn't seem bothered: "It's whatever. I made a new one."

I was unable to confirm al-Kanadi's identity independently, but he's a known online IS fighter linked to the same Kik account.

Twitter has responded in kind to fighters they catch posting graphic images, but those who follow IS and their online presence know full well the spate of graphic shots are nothing new to the group's social media presence, and it likely won't dent their resolve to post more brutal images.

In June, they live-tweeted the mass execution of over a thousand Shia Muslim men on their way to conquering swaths of northern Iraq, causing members of the central government to fear what was coming. As I've reported, IS uses social media as a tactical sort of war paint: part intimidation, part war strategy.

Not long ago, they posted gruesome photographs of beheaded Syrian Army soldiers with their heads spiked to a town fence in Raqqa, an IS stronghold, amidst a tireless stream of photos of cute animals hanging out with their assorted weaponry.


Early Wednesday morning Twitter CEO, Dick Costolo, said the company was "actively suspending accounts as we discover them related to this graphic imagery."

But while several fighters appear to have vanished into the thin air of the Twitterverse after such threats, several have popped right back up under the same pseudonyms. In at least some cases, they're using the same display pictures.

One prolific tweeter, adopting the moniker Abu Dujana (above), has in the past endorsed beheadings, posting things worthy of his Twitter ban. Which didn't actually last long given his sudden re-emergence online.

Some fighters compare efforts to snuff out their Twitter presence to playing a bad game of "whack-a-mole" in an arcade. Try as you might to hit them, they'll always pop up in another hole:

Banning Jihadists from Twitter already seems like an impossible feat, especially when at any moment there's nothing stopping a banned fighter simply from recreating an account outside the auspices of Twitter officials. Unless you could somehow impose an internet black out on targeted regions of Iraq—even then, the Iraqi government did that with mixed results—it's a near impossible task.

For the company's part, I asked Twitter why they were shutting down accounts with impunity. "We do not comment on individual accounts, for privacy and security reasons," Twitter spokesperson Nu Wexler said in an emailed statement. He then directed me to their terms of service, which outlaw content like pictures of dismembered bodies.

At the moment, given the tragic events of the last 48 hours, there's been a knee jerk reaction to ban all IS fighters and their fanboys from online comments. And there are those advocating for an all out "#ISISMediaBlackout" on Twitter, with users hoping the IS fighters of the Twitterverse go completely ignored.

Either way, protests or not, IS isn't leaving Twitter anytime soon. Even if they did, as BBC reports, they'd find another similar platform like Diaspora, to post their images. And by the way, Diaspora developers have already admitted they can't control IS fighters on the decentralized network.

I , for one, am of the same mind as some other analysts on Twitter: allowing them to remain online allows us to glean important information from an otherwise unknowable group.