Florida widow alleges Twitter violated Anti-Terrorism Act

By Shawnna Stiver | Feb 29, 2016

OAKLAND – A Florida woman whose husband was killed in a terrorist attack in Jordan last year is suing Twitter, alleging the company knowingly let the Islamic State group (ISIS) use the network for spreading propaganda, raising money and recruiting members.

Tamara Fields filed a lawsuit on Jan. 13 in the Northern District of California Circuit Court against Twitter Inc., alleging the San Francisco-based social media company gave ISIS an “unfettered” ability to maintain official Twitter accounts. 

Fields’ husband Lloyd was murdered in a Nov. 9 attack on the police training center in Amman.

The suit claims that by allowing the group to maintain Twitter accounts it violates the federal Anti-Terrorism Act for openly giving support to terrorists. It is the first case in which a social media company has been accused of violating that law. 

“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,” the complaint alleges.

Johnathan Hafetz, associate professor at the Seton Hall University School of Law, says the case raises important issues amid new legal terrain. 

“It pits some competing values against each other: The importance of social media as a platform for discussion and exchange of ideas and the almost revolutionary role social media is playing on expanding the bounds of public discourse, against the way in which terrorist groups have been able to exploit social media to facilitate their recruitment and propaganda," Hafetz recently told the Northern California Record.

There have been cases before this one that have given rights to victims in international acts of terrorism, but Hafetz said this case faces significant legal hurdles proving a direct connection between Twitter and the act of terrorism.

“Twitter hasn’t done anything directly, other than made the site available to ISIS by virtue of it being available to everyone,” Hafetz said. “I think the suit is contributing to the pressure for Twitter and other social media companies to be more vigilant in policing their sites for potential use by terrorists.”

As a result of the lawsuit, Twitter has suspended more than 125,000 accounts since mid-2015 that show connections to terrorist or extremist groups, mostly ISIS. The company also said it has increased the number of employees reviewing reports so they can stay on top of and respond quickly to posts related to potential terrorism.

“The case demonstrates continuing challenges of tackling terrorism in a way that is both responsible and protective of the need to maintain freedom of expression,” Hafetz said.

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