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The Growing Extremist Presence on Twitter Highlights a Serious Issue

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The social-networking site Twitter is an eclectic and anarchic public forum, with today's top 'trends' (topics being discussed) as I write this piece as varied as 'Andrea Pirlo' and 'What really turns me on'.

However, the diverse interests of its users, and the laissez-faire attitude towards regulation practiced by the network's operators, means that extremists are also able to use the site to spread their propaganda.

A recent study carried out by a BBC analyst has been following a number of Twitter profiles which affiliate themselves with violent jihadist groups for the past month and a half and has unearthed some fascinating results.

Finding that a number of extremist groups are becoming more sophisticated in their use of social media, the report details the use of Twitter by terrorist groups including the Al-Qaeda linked Somali insurgents Al-Shabaab and the Afghan Taliban.

It also highlighted the creation of unofficial accounts which identify with and share the material of individuals such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda, and Anwar Al-Awlaki, an Al-Qaeda-linked cleric killed in Yemen last year.

The use of social media and the internet by extremist groups to target vulnerable young people for recruitment has been detailed by government, the Prevent review in 2011 declaring that they have "transformed the extent to which terrorist organisations and their sympathisers can radicalise people in this country".

The case of Roshonara Choudhry, who tried to assassinate the MP Stephen Timms in his constituency surgery in Beckton in May 2010, also emphasises the danger of online material. As I have written before, Choudhry appears to have been radicalised after listening to Awlaki's back catalogue of lectures on the internet.

Last week also saw the trial of Mohammed and Shasta Khan, a husband and wife who are accused of planning bomb attacks against Jewish targets in Manchester. It is alleged that were self-radicalised via extremist material found online, particularly 'Inspire', the English language online magazine produced by Al-Qaeda.

The study's findings about the prevalence of extremist material on social media sites, and concerns about potential online radicalisation, echo those of a recent report by Student Rights.

In this report we examined the use of Twitter by a number of students and recent graduates involved in Islamist activism at London universities.

We found examples of when it was used to interact with senior individuals in the non-violent extremist political party Hizb ut-Tahrir, and also that it was frequently used to share and promote Islamism-inspired ideology.

We also found external individuals using other forms of social media, in this case Facebook, to share potentially illegal material with students.

This included an individual claiming to be based in Somalia, and using the Al-Shabaab war-flag as a profile picture, using Facebook to share multiple videos featuring violent extremists including Awlaki with students at the University of Westminster.

In the past two weeks we have also found links to Facebook pages shared with students that promote the output of extremists linked to Al-Muhajiroun, an organisation proscribed by the British government, and to Millatu Ibrahim, a German Islamist movement recently banned in Germany.

The responses to both our findings and those of the BBC study have been decidedly mixed. In our case, when we informed universities about the material shared via Facebook it was often removed following discussions with students, though this was not always the case.

On the other hand, the BBC article notes that Twitter are yet to respond to questions asking what they are doing to monitor the extremist material found, or what their policy is on the matter.

Whilst Google recently removed 640 videos from YouTube which promoted terrorism, the sheer volume of material can make this very difficult, and this is no doubt the case with Twitter.

That extremists use social media to disseminate their ideas and to provide a platform for militant organisations to reach an audience of supporters and prospective recruits should not surprise people. What should is the ease with which they are able to do this.

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