Terrorists on social media: freedom of speech or national security issue?

Sierra Cymes

Sierra Cymes
Sierra Cymes

Ever since the creation of social media sites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, terrorist groups have reached across borders and are co-opting popular culture in order to find common ground and radicalize susceptible teens.

Do you like this band? How about this sports team? Do you want a better life for yourself? Great, come one and Allah. Through social media, the recruitment for the Islamic State is now a grassroots business. But the government is starting to eye the privacy of online, and in the process is undermining what makes the American way better than the culture that ISIS offers.


Along with an aerial bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria, President Obama pledged that the government would “intervene with at-risk individuals before they become radicalized toward violence and decide to travel abroad to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS” in September. As a result, 60 percent of Twitter’s requests for information came from the government in the first half of 2014, according to a company statement.

This is wrong. Our government should not be pressuring social media companies to disclose private account information: it is unrealistic to expect the private sector to withstand the powers of nation states, as well as being a major privacy concern.

The cases of Americans leaving to join ISIS can all be traced back to the interwebs. So while the government has good intentions in requesting these private account details, it is the wrong way to go about giving Americans security. Privacy to say and do what you want online is one of the great values of American culture. If you take that freedom away, you take away a part of what makes America a desirable place to live. Our government should focus on securing our real borders instead of infringing on freedoms online.

Yes, ISIS has extended an electronic arm across our borders, spreading its message, gathering foreign intelligence and — in extreme cases — snatching possible recruits. Yet this seemingly insidious connection hasn’t actually done much damage. We think the word “terrorist” is the same as “suicide bomber.” But what ISIS is offering for a large part is what draws everyone to revolutions and movements for change: a chance to be a part of something bigger than yourself. A chance to start over.

The Islamic movement doesn’t just need suicide bombers. People may work as a teacher, or engineer or doctor. In the past few years, some branches of Al Qaeda are allowing women to join. But instead of becoming suicide bombers, most of these women become part of what is known as “sex jihad,” serving the needs of their militant husbands. This was reported in places like Syria and Tunisia, but the result is felt closer to home.

In October, three girls in Denver under the age of 18 skipped school on a Friday and were found in an airport in Frankfurt, Germany, four days later. The plane in Germany was connecting them to Turkey and then to their final destination of Syria. These girls had online records that tie their escape attempt to online communication and influence from ISIS.

But these cases are so few and far between, it is almost a non-issue in the States.

In our open and free society, terrorism influence is not as widespread as some may make it seem. People buy into the culture offered by the Islamic State because they believe it will give them a better life, and whether or not they find it, they have the freedom to try. Unless they pose an imminent threat, the government should back off. By maintaining our values of freedom and democracy, we get to represent the values that make America the better option.

Collegian Columnist Sierra Cymes can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @sierra_cymes.