Are social media companies inadvertently hiding info on Florida terrorist?

The Orwellian decision to immediately delete accounts linked to the Pensacola shooter leaves researchers, media and even governments with less tools to track his radicalization and network.

The main gate at Naval Air Station Pensacola is seen on Navy Boulevard in Pensacola, Florida, U.S. March 16, 2016. Picture taken March 16, 2016 (photo credit: U.S. NAVY/PATRICK NICHOLS/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
The main gate at Naval Air Station Pensacola is seen on Navy Boulevard in Pensacola, Florida, U.S. March 16, 2016. Picture taken March 16, 2016
Several days after the Friday attack at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, the public is still seeking answers about the incident. As with recent terror attacks from New Zealand to Sri Lanka, social media giants are in the spotlight. This is, in part, because social media tends to be the go-to place for terrorists to post content, such as manifestos or videos of crimes. It is also where terrorists build up a digital footprint over the years, shedding light on their radicalization process.
However, in the terrorist case in Florida, even as the FBI said it was presuming the attack was an act of terror, social media giants were working to wipe out the history of the attacker, leaving the public and investigators potentially in the dark about motivation, radicalization, friend networks or supporters the perpetrator may have had.
CNN reported that a Twitter account with the handle @M7MD_SHAMRANI had posted a message prior to the attack, saying the terrorism was in response to American “crimes.” That tweet was noticed by SITE Intelligence Group and has been reported elsewhere. We know that this Twitter account was created in 2012, but according to CNN was “taken down on Friday.” A spokesperson for Twitter said the account was suspended, but told CNN “that’s all we have to share.”
Unlike with print media, radio and other platforms, where there is a record one could listen to, with online media, once an account is deleted, it’s hard to find records of it. There is no freedom of information act request that can be made; corporations seem to have absolute control over potential evidence.
Governments also ban the dissemination of manifestos or try to shut down Internet and social media in the wake of attacks. Social media has absolute control over information, unlike other companies. For example, a credit card company that discovers a person linked to one of its cards passed on doesn’t simply delete the person’s accounts and pretend he never existed. When a person is deceased, there are death certificates and other information that would be provided. However, social media has no such responsibilities. There are no laws regarding archiving information on current and past users.
The system is opaque, and law enforcement appears to be at the mercy of whether such companies even want to share information before scrubbing their sites of the account of a person linked to a attack. They don’t even require a request from law enforcement, or pertinent information, before taking steps within hours of an incident. It is most likely that never before in history has the existence of a person been so easily removed.
We now know that several students attended a dinner party at the suspect’s house and videotaped the shooting. In addition, an official told The Guardian that other Saudi students watched from a car. According to this official, 10 Saudi students are being held on the base, while “several others were unaccounted for.”
The Soufan Center notes that the incident raises serious questions about the vetting procedures by both Saudi Arabia and the United States when it comes to identifying individuals who may be planning to commit attacks. Several reports indicate the perpetrator posted a manifesto prior to the attack. However, it appears that sharing that manifesto can result in being banned or suspended from social media. For this reason, we have little way of knowing what the perpetrator thought, and that leaves the public in the dark about reporting radicalization.
Governments tell the public, “if you see something, say something,” but at the same time, the larger message is, “don’t see anything,” because every trace of what terrorists think and believe is washed away immediately after their attacks. It might be replaced with general, secondary-source reporting such as, “he expressed sympathy for al-Qaeda’s Bin Laden.” The public can’t identify a similar case because they can’t see the primary material. In this sense, the public is encouraged to look away, or to rely on law enforcement to conduct an investigation without any public input. Clearly, this is because much of the information has disappeared.
The problem with the rapid deletion of accounts lies in the fact that every social media account shows a clear trajectory of the person’s posts and “likes.” Leaving that for open source investigators to look at, to learn from and spot warning signs can be helpful. For instance, the Florida shooter was allegedly an al-Qaeda supporter, of which there have been few recently. Did he use certain terms or links that are now being shared by a new generation of al-Qaeda, that needs to be examined by the public and by governments? Doing so could reveal how the information might be flowing not only in Saudi Arabia and the US, but potentially in Asia, Africa and other places. We cannot say for sure, since this information is gone.
There is no open discussion in most countries about this issue. Even when an archive of a terrorist’s account is downloaded, there are elements and links that are probably permanently broken when an account is removed. In addition, there does not seem to be a database or method by which researchers or journalists can access archives of terrorists or other perpetrators.
This also happens with other types of incidents, in a seemingly arbitrary manner in which social media and big tech giants remove information without any appeal process or ability for the public to have a check and balance over decisions. For instance, Nasim Aghdam, who opened fire near YouTube’s headquarters and then apparently committed suicide in April 2018, had a large online presence. According to The Telegraph, all the social media giants “scrubbed” her accounts after.
In many cases, social media giants seem to be immediately deleting accounts of alleged perpetrators even before court cases or decisions are made by governing authorities. The deletions help obscure warning signs that social media giants missed. For instance, after the rise of ISIS, major companies began cracking down on extremist content. In 2018, Twitter said that since 2015, it had suspended 1.2 million accounts linked to terror support or extremism. Facebook also said that in September it had expanded its definition of terrorist organizations to “spot and block live videos of shootings.”
According to the The New York Times, this included links to other platforms where people might post manifestos or extremist content. Other sites are being more proactive as well, such as TikTok, which removed dozens of alleged ISIS propaganda accounts. Extremists allegedly moved from Telegram to Tam Tam to post their propaganda in the wake of the recent London Bridge attack.
The proactive removals are one way to combat extremism from spreading online. However, the post-facto deletions leave questions about whether social media companies are doing due diligence, or just quickly removing accounts for fear of being blamed for not doing enough to prevent an incident. The massive removals of content also hamper researchers, who will not be able to reconstruct the rise of ISIS, or even some far-right extremism, because so much of the social media these extremists used has been paved over. It might be equivalent to destroying all the books and magazines, radio broadcasts and newspapers that catered to the rise of Nazism in the 1920s and 1930s, without bothering to archive them.