News of NYC Terror Attack Changes Focus of Senate Social Media Hearing

NEWS ANALYSIS: Experts on international terrorism turn from describing how terrorists use social media to reporting the level of chatter on Islamist networks as news about a deadly attack in New York reaches a Senate hearing on social media.

Terror on Social Media

The testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism started out as a discussion of how foreign propagandists and terrorists use social networks to sow disinformation and hate.

But later the discussion before the subcommittee, part of the Senate Judiciary Committee turned to news of an attack in Manhattan in which at least eight people died when they were mowed down by a suspected terrorist driving a delivery truck.

The subcommittee scheduled the hearing Oct. 31 to hear testimony from lawyers for Facebook, Google and Twitter about what their respective companies were doing to keep a lid on Russian attempts to interfere with domestic political activities in the U.S.

The second half of the hearing was given over to experts on international terrorism to discuss their research into the use of social networks and file sharing sites in the U.S. by terrorist and hate groups.

Clint Watts, who holds fellowships with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University, started his testimony by describing how foreign interests use social media in the U.S. for their operations and to influence public opinion here.

But then he dropped bombshell in the hearing chamber as he described a sudden increase in the level of chatter on social networks that coincided with an afternoon attack n New York City, where a suspected terrorist drove a rental truck down a bike path in lower Manhattan, killing eight and injuring at least 12, before ramming a school bus.

Watts went on to describe what was known of the attack at the time and to describe the increase in activity on terrorist networks. While he said that it was impossible to know just yet if the driver of the truck had been directed by the Islamic State, it was clear that they were aware of the attack.

He also described how terrorists groups have been using social media for years to recruit members and to spread their violent creeds.

“A decade ago, al Qaeda in Iraq littered YouTube with violent videos,” Watts explained in his testimony. “A few years later, Twitter became a playground for al Shabaab’s violent tirades in Somalia and the devastating Westgate shopping mall attack in Kenya. During this same period, I watched from my laptop and cell phone as thousands of young men and women used Facebook, Twitter and later Telegram to join ISIS, helping pave their way to becoming the Islamic State and executing never before seen terrorist attacks on many continents.”

Watts said that during the time he was studying the use of social media by terror groups, he also encountered Russian influence efforts.

“In the nearly four years since,” Watts said, “I’ve watched as they’ve employed social media at a master level to perpetrate the largest and most successful information attack in world history—a campaign that continues to harm our country even today.”

Prior to Watts' testimony, lawyers for Facebook, Twitter and Google testified that their companies were working to prevent misuse of their social networks and Web services by terrorists or by the Russians spreading disinformation.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...