In mid-February, the FBI raided Safya Yassin's Buffalo, NY, apartment after being tipped off to the hundreds of online threats she allegedly made against members of the military and President Barack Obama.
As the FBI's investigation continued, they discovered that in addition to making threats from dozens of different Twitter accounts, she also allegedly shared the personal information of a number of FBI agents using Twitter accounts that were purportedly associated with the Islamic State. Now, as Yassin, 38, stands trial, her legal team is arguing that her retweeting of ideas from ISIS/ISIL-affiliated accounts shouldn't be interpreted as her supporting them.
The DoJ disagrees.
"Her unrelenting support of ISIS/ISIL was patently obvious in her verbatim retweets on August 24, 2015," the DoJ's recently published arguments read. "[The tweets] alerted her followers of two FBI employees who were 'wanted to kill' and listed these employees actual names, city, state, zip code, and phone numbers."
Depending on who you ask, hitting the little green "retweet" button on someone else's tweet can mean a couple of different things. Some people retweet to signal boost a message while others retweet ironically to mock an idea. According to the Justice Department though, regardless of what your intentions might have been and whatever disclaimers you've attached to your profile, a retweet could be considered an explicit endorsement of the original tweet.
The "RTs ≠endorsements" axiom originated with New York Times editor Patrick LaForge, who added a version of the phrase to his Twitter bio sometime between 2007 and 2008. While the saying quickly became de rigueur for professionals new to the social network, LaForge has since expressed his distaste for how the phrasing came to be used as it grew in popularity.
“A blanket phrase in my profile is not going to indemnify me,” LaForge told BuzzFeed News in 2014. “If I think a retweet is likely to confuse people about my viewpoint, or if there is some doubt about the accuracy of the original tweet, I add attribution, skepticism or other context. Or I skip it.”
Valid as LaForge's point about RTs ≠endoresments failings as a disclaimer are, that doesn't mean that most Twitter users agree with him. Even now as Twitter's userbase has matured and the rules of Twitter etiquette have solidified somewhat, there are still tens of thousands of people making a point of explaining that their retweets might not mean what you think that they mean.
A broader view of Yassin's case is a little tricky: her retweets came in addition to explicit calls for violence that she herself tweeted out. Between the retweets and the messages she sent herself, it's easy to see why the Justice Department would focus in on her amplification of ISIS-sourced ideas in building its case against her.
Yassin's trial could have much larger implications for how people use social media platforms like Twitter, Vine, and Instagram where the co-signing of ideas by re-sharing posts is commonplace. According to Seamus Hughes, a deputy director to the George Washington University's Program on Extremism, a court's decision on Yassin's case could set legal precedent regarding whether language like hers is protected by the First Amendment.
For context, this wouldn't be the first time that people were held accountable for their violent, pro-ISIS calls to action on social media. Last year, 17-year-old Ali Shukri Amin of Virginia was sentenced to 11 years in prison for his role in providing valuable information to the terrorist group after becoming involved with them through a Twitter account that he set up.
While he was not convicted specifically because of his tweets, the prosecution made a point of highlighting the ways in which ISIS has made social media one its most effective tools at finding and recruiting people. Yassin's tweets, then, could be considered to be an extension of ISIS' cause.
"We haven't seen a duel between the limits of free speech and ISIS in the courtroom," Hughes told News Leader. "Does a retweet constitute a threat? Does posting a GIF constitute an actual threat? Or is it in the category of disgusting but protected free speech?"