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Twitter suspensions may actually be curbing ISIS propaganda

Photo by Bethany Clarke/Getty Images

Twitter’s efforts to suspend the accounts of suspected ISIS sympathizers is having an effect on repeat account offenders' activity levels and reach, according to a new report from researchers at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. Although Twitter’s work to get rid of the accounts is often seen as a game of whack-a-mole — users will just come back under different usernames — GWU’s researchers say the effort is worth it. They looked at four specific users over the course of a month to see how account suspensions affected their social media use.

"We found suspensions typically had a very significant detrimental effect on these repeat offenders, shrinking both the size of their networks and the pace of their activity," they wrote. "Each user had a different trajectory, with some recovering [from the suspension] more robustly than others, but all showed consistent declines over the monitoring period."

The accounts rarely fully rebounded to their pre-suspension levels

The accounts rarely fully rebounded to their pre-suspension levels, even when the new accounts were left up. The researchers suspect this could be because the suspension discourages returning users, as well as their followers. It could also be because suspended users curtail their activity so as not to get suspended again, but even if this is the case, the desired result could still be achieved — one less active ISIS supporter account on the social media platform. That being said, the study is limited in its scope; it only looked at four specific users who were found through a central account that indexes supporters. That central account was also likely limited by the owner's own personal network and language barriers.

at least 14 of the State Department's 57 DFTOs have Twitter accounts

While Twitter and the media focus on ISIS support accounts, researchers with Lawfare looked at other terrorist groups' use of the social media platform earlier this week. They found that although Twitter has taken down a reported 125,000 accounts associated with ISIS since mid-2015, it still allows other designated foreign terrorist organizations to have accounts. Of the State Department's 57 DFTOs, at least 14 have Twitter accounts. This fact, they write, begs the question of whether Twitter is violating material support laws, which they conclude it likely is.

Twitter will have to prove this isn't the case when it begins fighting a lawsuit filed against it last month. The lawsuit alleges that Twitter is indirectly responsible for the ISIS-linked killing of an American in Jordan last year. The lawsuit claims that because Twitter allowed ISIS supporters to exist on its platform, it gave rise to the attack that killed the American contractor. If Twitter loses, it would be liable for triple the damages incurred by the contractor's death.