Republican Texas Rep. Ted Poe made a unique point during a Foreign Affairs Joint Subcommittee hearing on the terror threat to Europe.
Why have social media companies been so much more successful blocking child pornography than pro-terrorism messages on their platforms? he asked.
“We have foreign terrorists that are using American companies to recruit, to raise money, to spread propaganda and to teach other terrorists how to make bombs,” he stated. “To be very clear, the Supreme Court has said that terrorists do not have a constitutional right to use social media. It is not a free speech platform that they are entitled to use.”
Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, offered his expertise as a witness. He claimed that, if given the option, social media companies want to be libertarian in their views but that they could “enforce their terms of services more rigorously.”
“We have seen that happen, at least recently, on Twitter,” he said.
He pointed out that a large amount of recruitment is happening through Telegram, a German messaging app that is highly encrypted. So for these purposes, Hughes said, we are more likely to see the “true believers” who are actively seeking out how to get involved with terrorist organizations.
Rep. Poe challenged Hughes, asking if social media companies should be held criminally liable for allowing for such exchanges to occur on their platform.
He responded that one “could argue some level of civil liability” and went on to explain what he believed to be “the larger question in place.” But Poe interjected, pointing out that “Our social media companies have brought down all of the child pornography sites with absolutely no problem about liberty.”
“That works. [So] why not use the same protocol to bring down terrorist sites? Why is that not occurring? Do you know?”
Hughes responded that it is occurring more rapidly on Facebook, and less so on other platforms. But he expressed that he would encourage social media companies to continue their current strategy to take down terrorist sites.
Poe then asked if any of the witnesses were “in favor of criminal or civil penalties against social media companies that don’t bring down terrorists sites?” None of the witnesses — Hughes, Robin Simcox of the Heritage Foundation, Dr. R. Kim Cragin of the National Defense University and Georgia Holmer of the U.S. Institute of Peace — responded.
“I guess that’s a no,” Poe said.
He ended by asking all four witnesses if someone could tell him the exact number of ISIS terrorists there are in the world.
“Does anybody know?” he asked. “An estimate? Y’all are the experts. You gotta give me a number here.”
He received no response.