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Twitter, in effort to root out terrorism support, suspends 235,000 more accounts

Nearly a quarter-million Twitter accounts have been suspended over the past six months for promoting terrorism.

The social media service Thursday gave an update on its bid to stay on top of the constant stream of new users and posts that offer support or connections to groups such as the Islamic State.

Back in February, Twitter detailed some of the changes it had made to monitoring and going after violent, extremist accounts, saying it had suspended more than 125,000 accounts in the seven or so months prior for threatening or promoting terrorist acts (most of them Islamic State-related).

In this Thursday update, that number has nearly tripled – since then, Twitter has suspended an additional 235,000 accounts, bringing the total number to 360,000.

“Daily suspensions are up over 80 percent since last year, with spikes in suspensions immediately following terrorist attacks,” Twitter said. “Our response time for suspending reported accounts, the amount of time these accounts are on Twitter, and the number of followers they accumulate have all decreased dramatically.”

The service said it’s also gotten better at stopping suspended individuals from immediately signing up again under a different name. They’ve also expanded teams that look at reported content around the clock, and upgraded the tools those people can work with.

Jeffrey Van Nest, media coordinator for the Minneapolis FBI field office, called it “increasingly a challenge” to gather evidence in these types of cases, because of encryption and the speed at which messages can spread online.

Referring to previous comment by FBI Director James Comey, Van Nest said the social media apps are used “to connect with troubled souls who ascribe to a violent ideology.”

He continued: “It’s something that we are obviously very aware of.”

The Minnesota U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on Twitter’s update.

Social media and terror recruitment

Social media has been a key tool for jihadist groups to recruit new supporters and fighters – FBI Director James Comey has called it “a devil on [the] shoulder” of potential sympathizers.

The influence of Twitter and Facebook are present in cases of the nine Minnesota men who pleaded guilty to or were convicted of attempting to support the Islamic State. In the indictment against them, prosecutors says some of the suspects had publicly posted content that suggested they supported jihadist groups.

One was a photo of Anwar Al-Awlaki, an American-born man who became a key influencer in al Qaeda; another included a black flag often used by jihadists; then there was a photo of a man holding a T-shirt saying “Syria” and “The Caliphate is Coming.”

Then there was the Twin Cities-raised Douglas McCain, who was killed while fighting in Syria in August of 2014. His social media postings were referred to often, including his Twitter bio which read, “Its Islam over everything.”

The Islamic State’s presence online

Whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, or any of the other social media apps, tracking terror activity is a gargantuan effort.

A report from the Brookings Institute in March of 2015 estimated at least 46,000 accounts that supported the Islamic State existed. Twitter then faced mounting pressure from lawmakers and the public to take action, a Yahoo story explained.

The Associated Press, in a story from July, talks about a 45 percent drop in Islamic State Twitter traffic over the past two years, thanks in large part to developing technology that can more easily and quickly identify the extremist content. One example from the AP:

“When pro-IS Twitter accounts are discovered today, they have about 300 followers each. In 2014, such accounts had 1,500 followers each, according to the data.”

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