Terrorist tweets challenge free speech

Somalian insurgents Al-Shabaab joined Twitter this month. Their account is a powerful propaganda tool – and America is threatening to shut it down.

When Jack Dorsey launched a micro-blogging site in 2006, ‘Twitter’ was the perfect name. It meant ‘short bursts of inconsequential information’, and seemed to sum up exactly what the product was about.

Five years later, however, the title is questionable. For millions worldwide, it is a major source of news and opinion. The platform has been credited with fuelling the Arab Spring, and the wanton looting of England’s August riots. Now, one Twitter account is such a threat to international security that the US is trying to ban it.

For many, Twitter’s major draw is its freedom – apart from a few rules, users can post any 140-character message they want. But that freedom, it turns out, comes at a cost.

Earlier this month, Al-Shabaab joined Twitter. The Islamist terrorists, who rule brutally over south and central Somalia, quickly garnered over 5,000 followers with eloquent tweets that publicised their cause and appealed for support.

Over the past weeks, a propaganda war between Al-Shabaab and the Kenyan military, currently fighting against them, has escalated. In a 140-character catfight, the enemies trade cutting insults about their cowardice, intelligence, equipment, and fighting ability.

To see an on-the-ground conflict move into cyberspace is not unheard of. In Afghanistan, American forces regularly exchange tweets with the Taliban, challenging each other about the death of civilians.

By reaching large audiences with persuasive, current material, Twitter is a powerful tool. For the US government, Al-Shabaab’s account is illegal – by convincing people of Shabaab’s cause, it seeks to attract recruits for the organisation, and supports terrorist activity.

For the Kenyan military, though, the account is an important means of communication. ‘Al-Shabaab needs to be engaged positively,’ they tweeted. ‘And Twitter is the only avenue’.

Freedom of speech?

Freedom of speech, many say, comes with responsibility. And when we threaten others with our words, we lose the right to say what we want. By hosting tweets, Twitter is arguably helping Al-Shabaab spread its dangerous views: if Twitter has any duty to prevent harm to others, the terrorist organisation cannot be allowed to say what it pleases.

The beauty of Twitter, others say, is that it is a neutral medium that gives everyone a voice. This obviously means it will host views we disagree with. But if we don’t hear these ideas, we will never be able to challenge them. And if one organisation, no matter how admirable, gets to dictate what people are allowed to say, are we not creating exactly the kind of intolerant, restricted society that so many extremists would welcome?

You Decide

  1. Why is using Twitter to share a view more serious than using other platforms?
  2. Is absolute freedom of speech a good idea?


  1. Choose a subject you feel strongly about, and write an 140-character tweet on that issue. How does selecting your words carefully make it harder, or easier, to be convincing.
  2. Read chapter three of John Stuart Mill’sOn Liberty. Write a short essay on the limits of absolutely free speech.

Some People Say...

“Technology should always be morally neutral.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What does Al-Shabaab actually do?
Al-Shabaab literally means ‘the youth’ or ‘the boys’. Affiliated with al Qaeda, it is committed to establishing Shariah law in Somalia, and is known to have restricted international aid workers’ access to famine-stricken regions of the country.
What is its relationship with Kenya?
Kenyan forces are currently supporting the Somali government in their fight against Al-Shabaab within Somalia. This has led to a heightened rivalry between Shabaab and the Kenyan military, and the terrorist organisation have carried out several attacks in Kenya.
What rules actually exist on Twitter?
Most of the site’s guidelines focus on privacy and impersonation laws. Users, however, cannot use the site to conduct illegal activity.

Word Watch

Jack Dorsey
Founded Twitter in 2006 through Odeo, another US web enterprise. Dorsey was originally inspired by the idea of bringing SMS messaging to the internet, and developed Twitter with colleagues Biz Stone and Evan Williams.
Arab Spring
The popular uprising which spread across the Arab world from the beginning of 2011. Protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya led to the fall of dictatorial regimes, and struggles continue in other countries of the Middle East.
A strict, and often militant, adherence to Islam, based on the belief that society should be governed by Islamic Shariah law.
Persuasive, biased materials, aimed to persuade people of a certain, often political, point of view.


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