Why is Twitter censoring the Islamic Jihad Union?

by Sarah Kendzior on 1/31/2013 · 4 comments

Today on Twitter I was followed by a new account called SodiqlarInfo. This was the Twitter account for the Islamic Jihad Union, a terrorist group originally based out of Uzbekistan who operate the website Sodiqlar. (In Uzbek, sodiq means one who is faithful or devout; -lar is plural.) I thought this was interesting, so I tweeted about it.

Within five minutes, their account was suspended.

I didn’t get a chance to archive the account, but from what I saw it had been online for about three hours and contained Uzbek-language news about atrocities happening to Muslims around the world. I didn’t notice any racial rhetoric or incitement to violence. Their earliest posts greeted their followers and praised Allah, and said that they were planning to use the account to tweet in the Uzbek Latin alphabet.

Later in the day I did a search for sodiqlar on Twitter. I found a new account, Shoshiyinfo, that was very similar to the other IJU account that had been deleted. It dated back to December 24, 2012, and included tweets to Gulnara Karimova asking whether she believed that Uzbekistan should become an Islamic state that follows sharia law. (Alas, I was unable to read Guli’s response since I am one of dozens on her blocked list.)

I tweeted about the new account, and retweeted their tweet to Gulnara. Within minutes, the Shoshiyinfo account was suspended as well.

When the first account was suspended, a few observers on Twitter speculated that it could be because it was a new account and was erroneously assumed to be spam – Freedom of the Press, a group that advocates transparency in journalism, had had their own account suspended for this reason. After the second suspension of the IJU, however, it is clear that this is not the case.

Earlier in the week Twitter suspended the account for Shabaab, a Somali group linked to Al Qaeda. But this came after the group posted photographs of a French commando they killed and threatened to execute Kenyan hostages.

The IJU did nothing remotely like this – the majority of posts were links to Uzbek-language articles about atrocities being committed against Muslims in places like Syria and Iraq. Furthermore, I highly doubt that anyone at Twitter was able to read their dozens of Uzbek-language tweets during the minute that passed between me announcing the existence of the second account and them suspending it.

Instead, this appears to be a case of Twitter censorship based not on content, but solely on the identity of the group – unusual since Twitter has long allowed the Taliban and other controversial organizations to tweet unfettered. Given the censorship of the Shabaab account, the suspension of the IJU’s two accounts seems to indicate a change in policy for Twitter, which has long promoted itself as a champion of free speech and transparency.

It is possible, as one analyst surmised about Shabaab, that because the IJU has members that appear on the Specially Designated Global Terrorist list, they are legally prohibited from using Twitter. (Regulation  31 C.F.R. 594.201 explicitly forbids any U.S. person from providing any “technological support for, or financial or other services to” anyone designated as an SDGT.) If that’s the case, then Twitter should be open about the fact that this is their policy. If it’s not, then they have some explaining to do.

Tonight I’m going to look over the second censored account, which I archived before it was taken down, and see if there was anything that advocated violence or contained other content that would instigate suspension. (Assuming, of course, that someone at Twitter speaks Uzbek and considered the content at all.) In the meantime, I welcome comments and information on whether Twitter has done this to other groups as well.


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This post was written by...

– author of 21 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who studies politics and the internet in the former Soviet Union. She has a PhD in cultural anthropology from Washington University in Saint Louis and an MA in Central Eurasian Studies from Indiana University. Her research has been published in many academic journals and media outlets, including American Ethnologist, Central Asian Survey, Demokratizatsiya and the Atlantic. She is currently an instructor at Washington University, where she teaches a course called "The Internet, Politics, and Society." Follow her on Twitter.

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Will February 1, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Sarah, I don’t understand your following line and why is this related to the story:
“Alas, I was unable to read Guli’s response since I am one of dozens on her blocked list.”
Not being a twitter user myself, I can read all of her tweets. Just an observation that her tweets are public.

Sarah Kendzior February 1, 2013 at 3:02 pm

Hi Will. Gulnara has blocked many users from being able to see her tweets, including me. This means that when I click on her account, it says that I am forbidden to see them. If I search through Twitter, I can access them anyway, but only back to a certain point.

David February 4, 2013 at 3:37 am

Your speculation about certain members of the IJU being on the Global Terrorist List seems pretty reasonable, but it’s also possible that the accounts weren’t censored at all, and rather they took the accounts down themselves. Out of curiosity, did the twitter accounts openly state their affiliation with the Islamic Jihad Union, or did you connect the dots and then tweet about it?

Sarah Kendzior February 5, 2013 at 5:27 am

The IJU did not take down their accounts voluntarily. Twitter posted a notice saying “This user has been suspended” for each account.

Both accounts put Sodiqlar.info as their URL in their bios and had tweets consisting solely of links to the website, which is the IJU homepage. I suppose it’s possible that they were just really big fans, but they promoted themselves as representatives.

Both the IJU and Shabab have since created new accounts that haven’t been suspended by Twitter — I suspect because of the attention surrounding both cases.

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