A recent flurry of posts in the Twittersphere against Hamas exposes a contradiction in the social media giant’s policy
In the past few days, Twitter users have been chiming in with questions for Hamas—the Gaza Strip-based Palestinian terrorist group—under the tag #AskHamas.
Many of the posts have taken a humorous, mocking or sarcastic tone with questions or comments about the terrorist group’s practices, including its use of human shields; targeting of innocent civilians in terrorist attacks; the luxurious lifestyle of its upper echelon compared to the living standards of most Gazans; and the presence of Palestinian children at its suicide bomber rallies.
The flare up in the Twittersphere is reminiscent of the one in 2015, when Hamas invited English-speaking users on social media to pose questions for five days which would be answered by senior Hamas officials. The group’s aim was to sow doubt over the designation of Hamas as a terrorist group ahead of a European Union court hearing that would issue a ruling on the question.
European institutions have long grappled with how to categorize Hamas. In the 2015 case, the General Court of the European Union decided to take the group off the EU’s official blacklist of terrorist entities. But in 2017, the European Court of Justice overturned that decision, declaring that Hamas should remain designated and referred the case back to a lower court.
Many democratic countries around the world including Canada and the United States have labeled Hamas a terrorist group.
What makes the current Hamas Twitter storm stand out is another, totally unrelated matter. Earlier this month, Twitter decided to suspend the account of controversial conspiracy theorist Alex Jones for one week.
The social media giant found that Jones, founder of the far-right platform Infowars, had violated the company’s policy against inciting violence when he tweeted a link to a live video session in which he apparently called on supporters to ready their “battle rifles” against certain groups, including the media.
Twitter’s ban was only for one week, preventing Jones from issuing more tweets, not reading others. The company is the only remaining high-profile social network that has not banned Jones and his Infowars platform from permanently from using its services.
Jones is well known for proffering outlandish theories ranging from the U.S. government staging the 9/11 attacks to left-wing activists faking the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre in which 26 children and adults were gunned down at the elementary school in Connecticut. The latter claim got Jones in trouble. Earlier this year, several families of the victims filed a defamation lawsuit against the broadcaster.
Twitter’s decision to ban Jones raises questions about why the tech company still allows Hamas to use its platform despite the widely held view that the group is a terrorist organization.
When contacted by The Media Line, Twitter did not respond for a comment on the issue.
Israel is the only country that through legislation forced Twitter to block or close down some 35 Hamas and Hizbullah accounts. Outside of Israel, however, Hamas pursues its outreach aims through Twitter.
On a similar front, the Israeli government’s “Facebook bill” has been steadily working its way through the legislative process, requiring one more reading in the Israeli parliament before becoming law. If passed, it would allow the government to petition courts to order the removal of content deemed illegal, especially if it poses a danger to individuals or the state.
Earlier this year, Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked claimed that Hamas and Hizbullah “have switched to operating on Twitter instead of Facebook.” The reason, she added, was “the fruitful cooperation between Israel and Facebook, compared to the lack of cooperation by Twitter.”
Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Mordechai Kedar, an expert in Arab political discourse and mass media at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, explained to The Media Line that “Hamas uses Twitter because it can. Hamas members hope to reach a large number of people, and many are simply curious to see what they have to say.”
Kedar noted that while it might be useful to allow Hamas to use Twitter so that the group’s tactics—how it disseminates messages, thinks and plans—is exposed, in the larger picture its use of the platform is detrimental.
“Hamas should be banned from Twitter as the platform allows it to take part in a world-wide social media discourse,” he asserted.
“When we allow it to take part, we legitimize the terrorist group’s being and ideology, and along with that, its atrocities—its killings, hostage-taking, and attacks on innocent civilians.”
Gabriel Weimann, a professor at Haifa University and author of the book, Terrorism in Cyberspace: The Next Generation, conveyed to The Media Line that whatever Hamas is doing on Twitter is not new.
“They changed the platform and the tactics, but their strategy is all the same,” he said.
“We started monitoring terrorist activities online in 1989. Hamas was already online, and so was Hizbullah and al-Qa’ida; Islamic State was not yet in existence. These groups began appearing on the net as websites. At that time, there was no social media.”
Weimann highlighted that these groups have posts on their websites, including links to images, photos, videos, teachings, and for contacting them. “So the propaganda effort of these groups is nothing new. And even the idea to interact with audiences is not new, only that it was more, let’s say primitive, and not as interactive as today.”
The difference now, he expounded, is that Twitter and other social media outlets are more appealing for terrorist groups today, rather than websites. “Because with websites it is like me sitting and waiting for you to come to me. With social media, I can reach out and get to you.”
Responding to the question of whether the rest of the world should follow Israel’s example and block terrorist groups from using Twitter, Weimann said it is almost impossible to expect social media companies to fully bar terrorists’ access to their platforms.
In his estimation, we should not expect social media organizations to become political censors. This would give them the power to decide what is terrorism, radicalism and political violence. Second, it is unlikely these companies would invest vast sums of money required to monitor all their traffic.
“Third, instead of attempting to block terrorist groups—which is in many ways futile because even if you block them, they will re-emerge with a different name, title, or hashtag and so on—maybe we should think about other measures of counter-terrorism on online.
“For example, one idea is to launch counter-terrorism campaigns on the same social media, immunizing societies, groups or communities against the preaching of terrorist activities.”
Weimann concluded that social media should not just be the weapon of the enemy, but a medium used against the enemy. “Why allow only terrorists to use Twitter and other social media and not to launch counter-terrorism campaigns on the same social media?”