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Can Twitter Be Liable for ISIS Tweets?

Can Twitter Be Liable for ISIS Tweets?

Islamic State has been able to mobilize followers via social media sites like Twitter. Could those social media sites be held liable for such online activity?

A civil lawsuit filed against Twitter Inc. in California federal court this week could offer some answers.

The lawsuit was brought by a plaintiffs’ class-action law firm on behalf of the wife of a Florida defense contractor who was one of two Americans killed in a shooting spree attack in Jordan last November. It alleges that ISIS was responsible for the attack and that Twitter helped contribute to the bloodshed by allowing the terrorist group to use the site to spread propaganda, attract new recruits and raise money.

Twitter says the suit has no merit. “While we believe the lawsuit is without merit, we are deeply saddened to hear of this family’s terrible loss…..Violent threats and the promotion of terrorism deserve no place on Twitter and, like other social networks, our rules make that clear,” a Twitter spokesman said in a statement Thursday.

The lawsuit “will be a very big deal if it survives a motion to dismiss, but that is a very big if,” wrote Brookings Institution fellow Benjamin Wittes and Harvard Law School student Zoe Bedell in an analysis of the complaint posted on Lawfare Blog,

“If this is successful, there’s a potential for a lot of litigation on this issue. You think about all the attacks that have happened,” said Emily Goldberg Knox, a Jones Day lawyer who wrote a recent law journal article titled, “The Slippery Slope of Material Support Prosecutions: Social Media Support to Terrorists.”

The lawsuit, which comes amid recent reports that American ISIS sympathizers are particularly active on Twitter. Some have questioned whether Twitter is doing enough policing but others, including FBI director James Comey, have praised the company’s efforts to shut down ISIS-associated accounts.

The complaint mainly relies on two federal statutes.

One (18 U.S.C. § 2333) passed in the early 1990s creates a private civil cause of action for victims of terrorism. The other (18 U.S.C. § 2339B) approved by Congress in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings makes it a crime to “knowingly provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization.”

Courts have said that victims have the right to sue not just terrorists but “those who materially support them,” wrote Mr. Wittes and Ms. Bedell.

The Supreme Court, in a 2010 ruling, said that “material support” means a service being performed “in coordination with, or at the direction of, a foreign terrorist organization.” Generally, says Ms. Goldberg Knox, the federal statute has been used to prosecute people providing money or weapons to terrorism groups or joining the groups themselves.

Twitter has several arguments it can make in its defense.

The Electronic Freedom Foundation thinks Twitter is shielded by a federal law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, that says online content providers generally do not bear civil liability for content published by a third party. It’s the same law that protects Twitter if someone tweets something defamatory.

Ms. Goldberg Knox told Law Blog that Twitter could defend itself by emphasizing how large it is — more than 300 million users around the word — and arguing that it’s unreasonable to expect it to screen out everyone who may have ties to terrorists.

Mr. Wittes and Ms. Bedell write: “Twitter can try to argue that it wasn’t knowingly providing services to terrorists because the company has no way of knowing it is making its services available to someone potentially dangerous.”

In an interview with Law Blog, Mr. Wittes noted another potential weakness in the lawsuit: He said the lawsuit never alleges that the killer of the defense contractor used Twitter himself.

Twitter says the company has teams around the world that actively investigate reports of rule violations, partner with organizations countering extremist content online, and work with law enforcement when appropriate.

How We Can Help
If you, a friend or a family member find themselves in a situation such as this, please call the Law Office of Scott A. Ferris, P.A. at 305 670-3330 right away. Scott A. Ferris, Esq. is a licensed civil law attorney who has been practicing law since 1987. He is available whenever you need him to pursue your rights. Please learn about our firm at
Republished by the Law Office of Scott A. Ferris, P.A.



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