Twitter Crushes Jihadist Celebration Of Nice Attack

A surprisingly speedy crackdown by the social media giant stopped the party among Islamist sympathizers before it started

(Illustration: Diana Quach/Vocativ)
Jul 18, 2016 at 1:23 PM ET

Dozens of jihadist sympathizers tried to spread violent propaganda across Twitter in the wake of the deadly terror attack in Nice—and largely failed, thanks to an unusually speedy crackdown by the social media giant.

According to a watchdog group that monitors jihadist activity online, Twitter suspended at least 50 Islamist-linked accounts that sought to celebrate the carnage on Thursday after Mohamed Bouhlel used a box truck to kill more than 80 people along the French city’s seaside promenade. The Islamic State quickly claimed credit for the rampage, though French officials are still looking for a credible link between the deranged driver and the terror group.

“Twitter moved with swiftness we have not seen before to erase pro-attack tweets within minutes,” the Counter Extremism Project said in a statement. “It was the first time Twitter has reacted so efficiently.”

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The rapid response to the Nice attack reflects the tech company’s growing effort to curb the spread of extremist content on its site. Twitter, along with Facebook and other companies, have faced months of pressure from governments to more aggressively police their platforms. Analysts and U.S. counter-terrorism officials, meanwhile, have long warned that terror groups such as the Islamic State appear to be winning a propaganda war against its western enemies—and that jihadists use social media to recruit and radicalize with startling success.

Such criticism continues to pit these companies’ desire to protect free speech on their platforms against accusations that they provide a fertile breeding ground for terror. While Twitter and Facebook remain to opposed to some measures, such as counter-terrorism legislation in Congress that would force them to spy on their users, they’ve slowly warmed to tackling some terror cheerleaders head-on.

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Twitter announced in February that it had suspended roughly 125,000 accounts linked to ISIS and its supporters, a move that experts believe substantially undercut the Sunni extremists’ well-oiled propaganda machine. Facebook earlier this year stepped up its attempts to target users and material it views as supporting terrorism. And this month, the White House began boasting that ISIS Twitter traffic had plunged by 45 percent in the last two years, though those numbers cannot be independently verified.

As their use of Twitter and other mainstream platforms comes under greater scrutiny, Islamic State supporters have to taken several lesser known social media apps to swap terror tips and spread propaganda. Hundreds of ISIS fans, for instance, continue to flock to Telegram, a messaging service that allows individual users to share information with an unlimited number of anonymous subscribers. Vocativ last year uncovered one ISIS channel on Telegram that published old and new instructions on how to make explosive devices, hand grenades, suicide belts, and Molotov cocktails.