Tamara Fields' husband was among five people killed in a terrorist attack in Amman, Jordan, last year. And she thinks Twitter should be held responsible for his murder.
In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court Wednesday, Fields argues that Twitter has allowed ISIS to thrive. And her allegations that the online platform has done little to curb terrorist activity online mirrors a heated debate playing out in Washington.
“For years, Twitter has knowingly permitted ISIS to use its social network as a tool for spreading extremist propaganda, raising funds, and attracting new recruits,” Joshua Arisohn, a lawyer representing Fields, told BuzzFeed News. This amounts to “material support,” Arisohn argues, with Twitter contributing to the rise of ISIS and enabling deadly terrorist attacks.
The lawsuit centers around one attack in particular. Fields’ husband, Lloyd Carl Fields Jr., was killed in Jordan last year at an international police training center, where he served as a government contractor, according to the suit. ISIS subsequently claimed responsibility for the attack, the lawsuit says, describing its sole perpetrator as an “ISIS operative.”
“Without Twitter, the explosive growth of ISIS over the last few years into the most- feared terrorist group in the world would not have been possible,” states the complaint.
The arguments put forth in the lawsuit are undergirded in part by claims made by U.S. government officials who have suggested that Twitter is a crucial communication tool used by ISIS. “According to FBI Director James Comey, ISIS has perfected its use of Twitter to inspire small-scale individual attacks, ‘to crowdsource terrorism’ and ‘to sell murder,’” states the complaint. The lawsuit also cites news reports and statements from policy experts and U.S. lawmakers who criticize Twitter for doing too little to remove terror-related content.
Social media companies like Facebook and Twitter have faced heightened scrutiny following the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino as government officials ask to police their content more aggressively. Fields maintains that ISIS uses Twitter as a tool to recruit, fundraise, and inspire violence.
“While we believe the lawsuit is without merit, we are deeply saddened to hear of this family's terrible loss,” a spokesperson for Twitter said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “Violent threats and the promotion of terrorism deserve no place on Twitter and, like other social networks, our rules make that clear.” The spokesperson went on to say that Twitter has teams around the world charged with identifying and investigating extremist posts.
“Here's the message we hope to send to social networking companies and everyone else: If you knowingly provide material support to a designated terrorist group, you're going to be held accountable,” Fields’ attorney said.
As the Obama administration continues to push for increased cooperation between Silicon Valley and law enforcement, some in Congress have taken a more hardline approach. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has proposed that companies be required to report any terrorist activity on their networks. Others, like Sen. Ron Wyden, have characterised such plans as dangerous — placing tech companies in an unwanted role policing free speech.
Internet service providers, social networks, and online retailers also enjoy broad protection from liability that may arise from the speech that they host. Known as Section 230 of the Computer Decency Act, the law generally shields companies like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Yelp from being held responsible for the content posted to their services by others. Since the law treats online intermediaries as platforms rather than publishers, they, broadly speaking, “aren’t liable for the speech of their users,” Aaron Mackey, a legal fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation told BuzzFeed News.
“What’s interesting about this lawsuit is: it’s not actually saying Twitter is liable for ISIS speech. It’s saying Twitter is providing material support for terrorism,” Mackey said. Fields’ lawyers are making the case that Twitter isn’t merely an intermediary, but a participant. “This is new territory, claiming that Twitter itself is actually participating in terrorism as opposed to being a platform for speech about terrorism.”
If Fields prevails, and hosting terror-related content is ruled equivalent to providing material support to terrorism, Mackey said the consequences for the tech industry could be drastic. “I’m not sure where it ends. It has the potential to escalate and require a lot of changes to technology companies, shutting off whole swaths of access to regions of the world and to types of people.”
In response to criticism that Section 230 protects Twitter from such lawsuits, Fields’ attorney replied: “The Computer Decency Act is meant to give social media companies cover when their users commit libel. But Congress did not intend to give companies like Twitter a get-out-of-jail-free card when they knowingly hand over powerful communications tools to designated terrorist organizations so that they can recruit, fundraise, and spread propaganda.”
While Fields' lawsuit is at its earliest stage, the broader issue of social media and global terrorism remains a priority for the White House. Last week top administration officials met with Silicon Valley executives, including Apple CEO Tim Cook, to discuss ways technology companies could help law enforcement and intelligence agencies counter ISIS online.
In a brief obtained by The Intercept, the government expressed interest in developing an audience metric to measure the success of ISIS propaganda; augmenting the reach of anti-ISIS web content; and promoting voices that resonate with young people, offering alternatives to ISIS messaging.