Bankrupting Terrorism — One Lawsuit at a Time

Terrorist attacks continue to claim news headlines worldwide. Government and concerned citizens are still battling to understand who these terrorists are, what they want, and how to fight against them. It is evident that social media outlets have become ideal platforms to disseminate these Jihadist ideologies and recruitment.

Shurat Hadin, an Israeli law center, whose stated claim on their website is “Bankrupting Terrorism — One Lawsuit at a Time” has had their hands filled with civil action lawsuits on behalf of victims of terror and their families against these social media giants. It’s founder, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, says the role of social media in these incidents is significant, with the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube hosting content and videos on how to carry out terror activity, how to recruit, and how to reach battlefields in Iraq and Syria to join ISIS.

“As a result of lawsuits on behalf of terror victims against social media to get them to stop the incitement on their pages, in addition to other steps taken by legislatures and governments, we can see a change in the policy of the social media,” explains Darshan-Leitner. “They are mostly announcements,” she adds, but the hopes are that in the near future they will actually execute these plans and remove such content.

After terror attacks in London earlier this summer, British Prime Minister Theresa May accused social media companies of not doing enough to eliminate extremist content online. She agitated for more international agreements to “deprive the extremists of their safe spaces online.” Earlier this year, many advertising customers of YouTube, such as Verizon and AT&T, discovered that some of their ads were promoting hate-filled, extremist content. They decided swiftly to pull them from the site. Several UK companies had pulled their content similarly after a report in The Times cited occurrences of UK government ads promoting offensive content. As a result, Google lost tens of millions of dollars in revenue.

Google said they have already employed thousands of people and invested millions of dollars to fight abuse on its platform, but the increased pressure is pushing them to take further actions to improve on their tools and monitor content on YouTube better. They also updated and clarified their community guidelines against hate speech and incitement.

But Darhshan-Leitner points out that Google is too slow in their response and removal of such content — although they found great success in prohibiting banned items like pornography from appearing on the site.  In her opinion, the government can’t oversee what the websites must handle themselves.  “It’s not for the government of someone outside.  No other person can tell Google or Facebook what to do. You as a legislature cannot come in and decide what words are considered an incitement to terrorism, or what videos are considered to be terror videos.  It’s only for Facebook, Google, or Twitter themselves, in-house, to carry out these tasks.”

Facebook hired 3,000 content moderators, increasing the total to 7,500. Earlier this year, the company reportedly managed to remove approximately 66,000 abusive posts.  Despite these steps in the right direction, there are still tens or even hundreds of millions of posts that go unchecked daily.  And Facebook has still been too slow to respond to flags or complaints.  Many of these social media sites are afraid of fully replacing human moderation with automated moderation because the posts of some users might be removed unnecessarily.

After facing severe criticism, Twitter has found recent successful in removing more hate-filled content and accounts. They reportedly took down ten times the number of abusive accounts per day in 2017 compared to 2016. The company’s transparency report in March 2017 showed that almost 370,000 accounts were suspended for violations relating to the promotion of extremism.  “Social media groups have the algorithm to allow them do that.  At one point, Twitter took down 200,000 tweets of ISIS. How did they know how to do that?  They have the tools,” said Darshan-Leitner.

Currently, Shurat Hadin is in the first phase of fighting against social media.  Future rounds may go as high as the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, Darshan-Leitner expects to see tremendous changes in the business practices of these tech companies. She longs to see them excel and live up to their goals and mission.  “I believe they will have same effects the lawsuits had against banks then,” adds Darshan-Leitner. Referring to charges brought against many financial institutions for allowing terror groups to create accounts and use them for fraudulent transactions in the 2000s, the team of lawyers at Shurat Hadin “expect to see the same results with social media.”

About the Author
Danny Swibel is a Tel Aviv based reporter and analyst with They Can't, an organization that tracks and fights to remove anti-Semitic & extremist content online. He researches issues related to Iraq, Syria, Islamist groups, as well as security issues related to the Israel/Palestinian conflict. He was an analyst in the counter-terrorism firm Terrogence and reporter at i24News. He holds an MA from Tel Aviv University's Middle Eastern Studies Program.