Twitter has found itself in some unusual legal trouble following a deadly attack on a Jordanian police training center last year that killed nine. The American widow of one of the nine killed in the November attack filed a lawsuit against the microblogging platform Wednesday for facilitating the spread of the the Islamic State’s (ISIS) message.
Florida resident Tamara Fields asserted that Twitter was partially responsible for the death of her slain husband, Lloyd Fields Jr., who was a government contractor assigned to train Jordanian police through the State Department.
“Without Twitter, the explosive growth of ISIS over the last few years into the most feared terrorist group in the world would not have been possible,” the complaint states. “For years, Twitter has knowingly permitted the terrorist group ISIS to use its social network as a tool for spreading extremist propaganda, raising funds and attracting new recruits.”
The lawsuit claims that Twitter is the terrorist group’s primary source for fundraising and recruitment, particularly in Western countries, capitalizing on the platform’s private messaging feature to relay propaganda or instructions. “Through its use of Twitter, ISIS has recruited more than 30,000 foreign recruits over the last year, including some 4,500 Westerners and 250 Americans,” the lawsuit states.
Twitter dismissed the complaint as being “without merit” but also expressed sympathy for Fields’ death in a statement. “While we believe the lawsuit is without merit, we are deeply saddened to hear of this family’s terrible loss,” a Twitter spokesman said in a statement. “Violent threats and the promotion of terrorism deserve no place on Twitter and, like other social networks, our rules make that clear.”
While the unusual complaint is likely to face an uphill battle, the suit does raise questions about how responsible social media companies should be when users’ activity poses a physical threat. The lawsuit fuels public and governmental pressure for Twitter and other social media sites to better moderate speech — especially when violent or graphic in nature — on their platforms.
Twitter recently updated its abusive behavior policy after receiving criticism for being too lenient on harassment and violent speech. The updated policy now explicitly includes language banning speech that threatens or promotes terrorism, but doesn’t define what behavior or keywords would be considered terror-related.
The Obama Administration has repeatedly urged tech companies to cooperate with government agencies to stamp out terrorism. The White House’s national security advisors met with top Silicon Valley executives earlier this month to brainstorm on ways to “disrupt paths to radicalization to violence” and “identify recruitment patterns,” the Washington Post reported.
The tech industry tends to balk at such government proposals, especially when ideals of privacy and speech could be compromised. But politicians have been aggressive in their attempts to require social media companies to join the fight against terrorism. Through the Intelligence Authorization Act for 2016, the Senate Intelligence Committee proposed a bill last year that forces tech companies to report suspicious activity to law enforcement agencies. The bill passed through the U.S. House of Representatives last year and awaits a vote from the Senate.