On Saturday, India arrested Medhi Masroor Biswas, the man behind the pro-ISIS account @ShamiWitness. His arrest sent “shockwaves” through ISIS and pro-ISIS social media accounts since the jihadist group heavily relies on these platforms to broadcast their message.
Biswas rose to fame in 2011 with his knowledge of the Syrian civil war, but turned his attention to the Islamic State in 2014. His account became one of the most influential accounts with details about the jihadist group, which proved he was very close to actual members. He cheered on future jihadists from Britain and mourned those who died. But no one knew anything about him. The tweets led people to believe he was at least located in Syria, Iraq, or the Middle East.
Britain’s Channel 4’s expose revealed him to be an executive in India who posted pictures of food on his Facebook page.
After the arrest, accounts associated with the Islamic State disappeared. Twitter deleted some accounts. But more importantly, it proves why it is risky to trust social media. An account can state it is based in Syria, but actually be in the United States.
“Shami Witness was an example of a certain kind of person on social media, someone who repeats what they see from other sources as his own comments on the situation at hand, often information shared by pro-IS accounts in Arabic, which gives a false sense of his knowledge about the situation,” said British blogger Eliot Higgins. “These kinds of individuals are harder to identify for the casual user on social media, so they tend to gain followers which lends them more credibility. He demonstrates that judging the credibility of a source isn’t always straight forward, and why with social media it’s important to use multiple sources before relying too much on one claim being credible or not.”
Biswas’s outing also put Twitter on the hot seat. While a lot of accounts disappeared, there are still many people spreading propaganda because there are not options to report people for terrorism. It is also very easy to set up a Twitter account. A person just needs a new email address, which is why people show up again under a new user name even though Twitter deleted their original account. In fact, the Shami Witness account is back.
“It is faster to start a Twitter account than to do a pregnancy test, ” said Former Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor Fran Townsend.
Channel 4 said over 1,500 accounts tweeted #FreeShamiWitness after the arrest. Some changed their profile picture to Shami’s image and changed their name to #WeAreAllShamiWitness.
— M-Shami-K (@y_dohak) December 14, 2014
— Shami Al Arabi (?) (@AlArabii_) December 13, 2014