Twitter says it blocked 22 Hamas and Hezbollah accounts at Israel’s request

In new report, social networking giant says it suspended 205,156 accounts for promoting terrorism during first half of 2018, having flagged most of them itself

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

In this February 8, 2018, file photo, the logo for Twitter is displayed above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
In this February 8, 2018, file photo, the logo for Twitter is displayed above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

Twitter partially blocked 22 accounts affiliated with the Hamas and Hezbollah terror groups during the first six months of this year in response to a demand from the Israeli Justice Ministry, the social media giant has revealed.

The accounts are blocked in Israel, but still largely operational in other regions.

Worldwide, the company suspended 205,156 accounts for violating the company’s rule against promoting terrorism. Of these suspensions, 91% were flagged by Twitter’s internal proactive tools, the company said.

Twitter’s 13th Transparency Report, published last week as the company and other social media platforms such as Facebook face an increasing chorus of public criticism, cast rare light on one aspect of the Israeli government’s cyber war on terror by publishing a letter dated June 26 which it received from the Cybercrime Department of the Justice Ministry.

The letter asked for the permanent closure of 16 named accounts belonging to leaders of the Gaza-based Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah, and a further 24 accounts connected to the organizations themselves, 12 from each one.

Both organizations are dedicated to the destruction of Israel.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh — whose Twitter accounts have been closed at Israel’s request — gives a speech on the first Friday of the holy month of Ramadan on May 18, 2018, at the Great Mosque in Gaza City. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

The letter cited Article 24 of the Israeli Counterterror Law (2016) which states that any act of solidarity with a terror organization, including any publication of support in its actions, is an offense punishable by three or five years’ imprisonment and it added that Article 23 of the same law forbids facilitating or aiding terror organizations.

Thirteen of the accounts belonging to senior Hamas officials have gone blank, save for a statement saying that the account “has been withheld in Israel in response to a legal demand.”

Among the senior Hamas officials whose accounts have been blocked are Ismail Haniyeh, Moussa Abu Marzouk, Fawzy Barhoum, Husam Badran, Salah Al-Bardawil, Sami Abu Zurhi, Osama Hamdan, Khalil al-Hayya, Fathi Hamad, Rawhi Mushtaha, Yousef Abu Kwyek and Taher al-Nounou. Al-Nounou is an adviser to Hamas leader Haniyeh. Mushtaha is considered one of the closest associates of Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s strongman in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian Ambassador to Russia Abed al-Hafeez Nofal (L) and Hamas deputy leader Moussa Abu Marzouk hold a press conference in Moscow on January 17, 2017. (AFP/Alexander Nemenov)

The only Hezbollah official on Israel’s list is the organization’s second-in-command, Sheikh Naim Qassem. His account has also since been blocked.

A search for the two accounts on the list of Khaled Mashaal — who headed Hamas’s political bureau between 1996 and 2017 – leads to a page saying, “Sorry, this page doesn’t exist.”

Just one of the 16 sites appears still to be functioning – that of Hamas official Izzat al-Risheq. Access is confined to confirmed followers only.

Of the organization accounts, Twitter blocked six promoting Hamas and two connected with Hezbollah, explaining that it was legally compelled to do so.

Twitter’s website explains that while the company respects user expression, it must also take account of “applicable local laws.”

“If we receive a valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entity, it may be necessary to withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time,” the site says.

The authorized entity may be a government or police force.

A legal request to remove (“withhold”) content is different from a request for Twitter to review content because it runs contrary to company’s terms of service or rules.

Upon receipt of requests to withhold content, Twitter says it notifies affected users and publishes the requests, unless it is prohibited from doing so either by a court or because the request falls into a category such as emergencies regarding imminent threat to life, child sexual exploitation, or terrorism.

In response to Israel’s request, Twitter also suspended five sites associated with Hamas and seven linked to Hezbollah.

Supporters of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terror group listen to a speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, via a video link, during a rally marking Hezbollah Martyr’s Day, in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, November 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Three accounts were permitted to continue functioning, two of them linked to Hamas.

Accounts are suspended if they are spam or fake, if there is any suspicion that they have been hacked or compromised, or if reports have been received that the content violates Twitter’s rules on abuse.

In all, Israel made eight legal requests to Twitter during the first six months of the year. Twitter complied with 13 percent of the requests, it said.

Of Israel’s requests, seven were for emergency disclosure, compared with just one during the latter six months of 2017.

Emergency disclosure requests can be made where there is “an exigent emergency that involves the danger of death or serious physical injury to a person that Twitter may have information necessary to prevent,” the company’s website says, adding that Twitter only discloses information “that we understand to be relevant to the emergency and necessary to mitigate or avert the specified threat.”

Where appropriate, Twitter will push back on requests which are “improper,” the report says. “These circumstances may include invalid or over broad legal process. Depending on the specific situation, Twitter may produce some data in response to a narrowed request, or not disclose any data.”

Globally, the company received around 80% more requests to remove more than twice as many accounts for legal reasons than during the latter six months of 2017 — the overwhelming majority – 87% — coming from Russia and Turkey alone.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses Muslim parliamentarians during a meeting on Jerusalem in Istanbul, December 14, 2018 (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)

Of the 135 accounts of verified journalists and news outlets that authorized entities such as governments wanted shut down, Turkey gunned for 90 of them.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used what he says was a failed military coup attempt in 2016 to clamp down on civil society.

Twitter responded by closing just two of the media accounts demanded by Turkey because they violated Turkish anti-terror laws.

Government information requests – emergency disclosure requests and non-emergency ones – were up 10% during the first six months of the year at nearly 7,000 requests — the biggest increase since the July-December 2015 report.

Of these information requests, nearly a third came from the US, 21% from Japan, nearly 14% from the UK, and percentages between 4.6 and 6.4 from Turkey, France, India, and Germany.

Regarding emergency disclosure requests, the UK overtook the US, submitting 531 requests (33.6% of the total worldwide for this category) compared with 444 from the US (28% of the total).

Britain has been on high alert since a series of terror attacks in London and Manchester last year.

Armed police on St. Thomas Street, London, on June 4, 2017, near the scene of a terror attack on London Bridge and at the capital’s Borough Market. (Dominic Lipinski/PA via AP)

For the first time, Twitter’s report addresses the company’s efforts to fight malicious automation and spam.

During the first six months of the year, it received more than four million reports of spam. It also proactively “challenged” 232,453,596 suspected spam accounts.

“When we detect that an account may be engaged in spammy or manipulative behavior, we may require that account to pass a “challenge,” such as verifying a phone number, solving a reCAPTCHA, or resetting its password,” the report explains.

“These challenges are simple for authentic users to solve, but difficult or costly for spammy or malicious users to complete. Accounts which fail to complete a challenge within a specified period of time may be automatically suspended.”

As our internal detection of manipulative behavior improves, the number of spam reports we receive from our users continues to decline, suggesting that users are encountering less spam as they use Twitter.”

Twitter, like Facebook and other major social networking companies, has suffered an avalanche of public criticism over recent months relating to a general lack of corporate responsibility, a cavalier attitude to data privacy and failure to stop Russia’s social media campaign to influence the 2016 US presidential election.

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