Wait, what? Twitter is a terrorist?

Twitter screws up, sends deluge of password-reset messages

Foreign Policy magazine ran an article this week that positions Twitter as a recruiter for Al-Qaeda:

There's a new jihadist recruiter on the Internet. Based in San Francisco and backed by a multimillion dollar bankroll, the recruiter orchestrates thousands of introductions every day, connecting people at risk of radicalization with extremist clerics and terrorist propagandists - even facilitating online meetings with hardcore al Qaeda members.

The recruiter is Twitter, and it's shaking up the world of online radicalization in ways both large and small.

This is ridiculous on its face, of course. Twitter is no more an Al-Qaeda recruiter than Craigslist is a pimp.

Foreign Policy logoYes, terrorists use Twitter as a recruiting tool, and if the author of the article is to be believed, it works well. But Twitter also works well for organizing protests against totalitarian regimes, discussing the latest security topic, immersing yourself in popular culture and sharing a link to your favorite cat video.

The real shame here is that the article contains some interesting content about how terrorists are using Twitter, and how it’s changing the dialog within jihadist circles. That’s fascinating stuff!

But it seems to me that the alarmist tone and the attribution of the recruiting behavior to Twitter – rather than to the recruiters that have found Twitter useful – moves the piece from informative to inexcusable.

The article also fails to acknowledge one really big national security advantage to this Twitterified recruiting activity: intelligence gathering.

It’s no stretch at all to assume that the National Security Agency, as well as the rest of the US three-letter agencies and similar around the world, are happily using social network analysis, data mining and security letters to gain insight into the comings and goings of emerging terrorist organizations.

Wouldn’t we rather have these conversations happening in plain sight on Twitter than on some private, encrypted network, or — even worse — off the grid entirely?

TwitterBut, let’s face it, the article stopped being about national security as soon as it attributed the fault for how a tool is used to the tool itself.

Twitter isn’t “spoon-feeding encouragement to potentially violent users” just because its algorithms point out connections between users. Expecting Twitter to use those algorithms, which identify possible overlapping interests, to censor its users or steer them away from terrorism demonstrates a certain naivety about how social media works.

If you use Twitter or other social media, this should serve as a reminder that people will inevitably draw inferences – no matter how misguided – about you based on who you follow, friend or add to your circles.

As always, it’s helpful to be vigilant about applying privacy settings and deciding what you post, where you post it and with whom you share it.