The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a Sunni militant group, now holds territory in Syria and Iraq that is roughly the size of Belgium. But it's also gaining ground on the Internet.
ISIL's presence on social media is quite sophisticated and relies on strategies that "inflate and control its message," wrote J.M. Berger in the Atlantic. In addition to maintaining accounts on popular social media sites, ISIL, also known as ISIS, launched its own app in the Google Play store (now removed) and has utilized hashtags on Twitter to "focus-group messaging and branding concepts, much like a Western corporation might."
The story of how the Iraqi government is dealing with ISIL's online presence has taken a backseat to the debate in U.S. media around military action. But it can easily be summed up in two words: not well.
Only about 7.1 percent of Iraq's population of 32.5 million people use the Internet. Add to that the U.S. occupation and ensuing conflict that has beleaguered the country, and it makes sense that Internet regulation has been a low priority for Iraq's leaders. Historically, the Internet in the country has remained mostly free from restrictions, and a 2012 attempt to institute a "cybercrime" law failed. Despite slow speeds, Iraq has managed to remain an open Internet zone.
But no longer: In the wake of ISIL's online onslaught, the embattled Iraqi leadership has scrambled to curb its influence. First, the Ministry of Communications ordered Internet service providers to block Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Just a few days after the sites were blocked, however, the ban was reversed. Then, a ministry directive to ISPs to shut down the Internet in five provinces and limit the use of virtual private networks and other sites was leaked, prompting outrage from Iraqi activists. It has also been reported that the Iraqi government used the opportunity to block pornography.
The Iraqi government isn't the only entity fighting ISIL online. On June 13, Twitter began suspending accounts belonging to the group. The removal of one account, @Nnewsi, drew particular ire from WikiLeaks, which tweeted its condemnation of the move. The account had been tweeting news of ISIL's maneuvers, providing journalists and others with a direct account of the group's actions.
While Twitter is generally transparent about its content removals, reporting legal takedown requests to the Chilling Effects platform, the company has been opaque when it comes to taking terrorist content offline. In January 2013, Twitter deactivated an account belonging to al-Shabaab, a militant Somali group on the U.S. list of foreign designated terrorist organizations. The removal of accounts belonging to designated terrorist groups Islamic Jihad Union, Indian Mujahideen and al-Qaida soon followed.
Twitter's rules prohibit, among other things, "direct, specific threats of violence against others," but the company famously avoids intervening in user disputes, frustrating some and giving the company its reputation as a platform for free speech. It's unclear, however, whether the accounts in question ran afoul of the company's publicly posted rules.
Beyond possible legal concerns lies the question of utility: Is there any benefit to Twitter allowing these accounts to thrive?
Anna Therese Day, an independent journalist who has been working on the ground in Syria since 2012, believes there is. "As a conflict journalist, the Internet, particularly social media, has been an invaluable tool in identifying and reaching out to sources and interview subjects," says Day. "In the case of ISIS, I've personally used various Internet applications to stay in touch with them as well as other sensitive sources, and their public internet presence has informed a significant part of our understanding about the group's recruitment, worldview, and motivations as well as how they relate to each other."
Iraq's attempts at curbing speech are also likely to have unintended consequences. Although the country's Internet users are still few, their use of social media covers a number of areas, including citizen reporting. In shuttering social media, Iraq's leadership isn't just silencing ISIL. It's also silencing those voices that would use social sites to report on or protest against the group's advancements. Amid the ongoing conflict, those voices may prove truly critical.
Jillian C. York is the director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.