As an independent journalist who contributes to various organizations inside and outside the U.S., Twitter is my virtual newsroom. It is where I get story ideas, connect with sources and engage with my readers. On average I spend at least four hours daily on Twitter. As the Islamic State's (ISIS) atrocities started to dominate the news cycle during the mid part of last year, most of my Tweets have become very ISIS-focused. I tweet about their latest actions, and the reactions that followed. As an native Arabic speaker, I spend a big chunk of my time following Arabic hashtags, Arabic-speaking influencers, and news organizations, and boy, let me tell you what I found. The world of Arabic Twitter is a scary one. I'm stunned by the amount of support that ISIS enjoys on Twitter, and mostly among Arabic speakers.
From users with profile pictures of the ISIS flag, to others who hail the group's "triumphs", what's happening in the Arabic Twittersphere is a huge reason for concern.
If you follow any ISIS-related hashtags in Arabic, you would find a large number of online supporters who post pictures and videos of beheadings and disseminate other ISIS propaganda. Some post verses of the Quran and the Hadith that they interpret as a justification for ISIS actions, while others pray for the world domination of the Islamic State.
This troubling fact has also hit me personally as I have been directly subjected to online harassment from ISIS followers while tweeting the news of the burning of the Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh who was captured by ISIS in December. One ISIS supporter sent me a picture of the body of a dead baby along with a tweet blaming the pilot for the death of unarmed civilians.
I once asked my followers if they have seen the statement that ISIS released about the death of U.S. female hostage Kayla Mueller, and was surprised to receive a very quick response from one of ISIS supporters (who had the ISIS flag as his/her avatar) who sent me a URL that took me to the official ISIS statement. It is worth nothing that this Twitter account was blocked a few minutes after it contacted me.
The truth of the matter is while I continue to tweet prolifically, I'm terrified of Twitter. In the past, I used to post some personal updates on Twitter so as to add a "human face" to my social media brand. Occasionally, I would post pictures of my children or mention places I'm traveling to. Not anymore! It is a scary world out there. I also make sure to turn off my geolocation option on Twitter. Did ISIS succeed in instilling fear in me? The answer is a definite yes.
I have been in touch with a contact who works at Twitter and who has been very responsive when I drew his attention to abusive accounts, but is that enough to stop the group from spreading their hate online? A few weeks ago, the online group Anonymous announced that they are targeting ISIS online by disabling their social media sites including 800 Twitter accounts. How many of these Twitter accounts were in Arabic, I wonder?
Also, do we really want to put our trust in an unknown online vigilante group?
Twitter CEO has recently admitted in a leaked memo that they "suck at dealing with trolls and abuse". Admitting this fact is a step in the right direction. My advice to Twitter is to pay extra attention to what's happening in the Arabic twittersphere. My recommendation is to hire an army of Arabic-speaking online monitors who will be tasked with fishing out abusive accounts, culling those who celebrate horrific deaths and disable their online presence. ISIS has infiltrated our thoughts, and succeeded in terrifying us. Let's try to put an end to this, at least online.