WASHINGTON — Mujahid Miski is on his ninth life. The owner of the Twitter handle @mujahid_miski9 proudly declares as much in his bio. Eight times he's been suspended for his support of extremists like ISIS and his promotion of violence. Eight times he's returned.
His ability to slip back into the digital conversation has frustrated a newly launched non-profit called Counter Extremism Project (CEP) to no end. Rolled out just a few weeks ago, the CEP announced that in its first major initiative would be taking on accounts like @mujahid_miski9 head on. Unlike the State Department's Think Again, Turn Away program — which engages with extremists and the people they're attempting to recruit — CEP's focus instead is to remove them from the internet through the power of crowdsourcing. But the results so far have been less than encouraging.
CEP is headed by Fran Townsend, a former White House counterterrorism adviser to George W. Bush. Townsend told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview that the project was inspired by how ineffective she saw government to be in engaging digitally with extremist groups.
"We recognized when we left government that it would be a challenge not just for one administration but any administration ... to really be able to challenge bad people, extremists, who were advocating violence in this new battlespace," Townsend said, referring to herself and the project's CEO, Mark Wallace.
The beheading of journalist James Foley was the catalyst for the Counter Narrative Program, the CEP's first major undertaking, Townsend said. "It was clear that the bad guys and their accounts, they were prepared for that event," she said, because they began to flood social media, targeting journalists and former government officials specifically.
"I blocked somebody and they'd come back at me," she said. "And we said, 'We have to do something and we have to do it now.'"
So far, the group has been picky, choosing eight accounts for the first wave of their campaign. Each of them has either self-identified as a member of ISIS or some other extremist group or threatened violence. CEP then implores the 619 followers of their @FightExtremism account to help them flag the accounts for Twitter and report them as spam.
The follower number is low — CEP has been taking an organic approach when it comes to growth, opting out of buying sponsored tweets and other methods. CEP said followers had already begun providing their own submission of accounts that the CEP should add to their target list, one of them with more than 100 Twitter handles attached.
Where it has run into problems, the group said, is with Twitter itself.
Townsend and others at CEP argue that Twitter hasn't done enough to make sure that these accounts stay down, not devoting adequate resources towards properly monitoring and removing them. Any account that CEP flags goes into the queue along with all the other complaints that Twitter receives on any given day. And as anyone who has attempted to flag an account for threats of violence, be they gender-based or from ISIS supporters, can tell you, it is an arduous process, sometimes taking 15 minutes or more.
Once the account it flagged, more time passes before anything happens. In the case of @mujahid_miski6, it took 12 days after he was reported for the site to take down the account. Three iterations later, he's still tweeting in support of ISIS.
Last week, the CEP leadership — many of whom are veterans of the United Against Nuclear Iran camaign — wrote to Twitter CEO Dick Costolo trying to arrange a meeting to discuss strategies on combatting extremism. Twitter's response to a follow-up from CEP was a boilerplate email:
"We review all reported content against our rules, which prohibit violent threats," Nu Wexler, a public policy communications officer at Twitter, said in response to a request for comment on their correspondence with CEP.
Townsend said she believed the onus was on Twitter and other tech companies to take greater responsibility for the content on their platforms. "'With great success also comes great responsibility,' to quote the former president," she added.
A short-term solution, Townsend said, would be granting CEP "trusted reporter" status. "We need a streamlined reporting status, where we're not just reporting spam or abusive content, because that's easy," she said. "We want to be able to say this is 'extremist content.'"
CEP isn't alone in thinking that Twitter and other companies like Facebook and Google can do more. A recent op-ed from the newly installed head of the GCHQ — Britain's version of the NSA — challenged technology companies to help roll-back the gains ISIS and other groups have made on the web. "To those of us who have to tackle the depressing end of human behaviour on the internet, it can seem that some technology companies are in denial about its misuse," Robert Hannigan complained.
But Jillian York, the Director for the International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Freedom Foundation, remains skeptical that technology companies policing speech is the answer. "I understand that there are truly dangerous things taking place on social networks, like direct threats of violence, and recruitment of terrorists," she wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News, "but corporations are simply not equipped to make these decisions, nor does the public have a voice in what corporations do. This is why we have law enforcement and government - that's where we should be looking for solutions."
And the ability of accounts like @mujahid_miski9 to return from the dead isn't something that will be changing anytime soon, according to Will McCants, a former State Department official and currently the head of the Brookings Institution's Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World. "If volunteers want to identify bad actors, then more power to them," he told BuzzFeed News. "But they should know that the person will pop back up and, if he's popular, he'll be easy to find under a new name because his contacts will spread the word."
There are arguments in the intelligence world both for and against taking down know extremists' accounts. In letting them continue to tweet, beneficial situations can arise, like when a Taliban recently outted himself as being in Pakistan rather than Afghanistan. On the other hand, McCants said, "sometimes it's valuable to knock down an account for intel reasons. It's useful to see how a network of radicals reconstitute themselves after an important hub is erased. You get a sense of the pecking order, who's connected to whom, etc."
It also isn't fair to say the steps that Twitter has taken towards suspending accounts related to ISIS have had no effect whatsoever, according to researcher J.M. Berger. For the last several years, Berger has tracked extremists — be they Islamic fundamentalists or white nationalists — online. "The metrics I collect strongly suggest the recent wave of suspensions significantly degraded ISIS's ability to do its work online," Berger told BuzzFeed News. "It's unrealistic to think ISIS can be eradicated from Twitter, but it is realistic to think that a judicious approach can significantly limit their reach and make it harder for them to accomplish their online goals."
The members of jihadi Twitter can also take some credit for their own resilience. Once targeted, accounts will either change their handle slightly or moderate their speech some. Or, in some cases, they'll begin interspersing their English tweets with Arabic, throwing off the ability of CEP's audience to support. Complicating matters further, none of the CEP employees charged with flagging these accounts is an Arabic speaker.
In a bit of turnabout, the targeted accounts have also stated issuing calls to their own followers to have CEP marked as spam and kicked off of Twitter:
So far, the CEP account is still active and its members undeterred. "I want to put myself out of business," Townsend said when asked about the ultimate goal of the project. "I want there not to be a need for me anymore. If I can literally close the whole CEP effort because there's no bad guys left on the Internet, I'll have won," she added, acknowledging that was unlikely to be the case.
Meanwhile, as if to prove her right, Mujahid Miski is still tweeting away.
Hayes Brown is a world news editor and reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Hayes Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.