A new study from the Brookings Institution, presented as the largest study of the Islamic State’s (ISIS) notoriously effective social media outreach via Twitter, found that as of fall 2014, supporters of the terror state had over 46,000 accounts, with about twenty percent of the tweets in English.
The report’s introduction described this estimate as “conservative,” with the maximum possible size of the ISIS cohort as high as 70,000 accounts.
The Brookings Institution found:
By virtue of its large number of supporters and highly organized tactics, ISIS has been able to exert an outsized impact on how the world perceives it, by disseminating images of graphic violence (including the beheading of Western journalists and aid workers, and more recently, the immolation of a Jordanian air force pilot), while using social media to attract new recruits and inspire lone actor attacks.
To appreciate the actual size of the ISIS social media footprint, the report observes that the average supporter’s account had over 1,000 followers, which is considerably larger than a typical Twitter user’s following. A core group of about 2,000 “hyperactive” supporters who issue a heavy stream of Twitter messages is responsible for most of the terror state’s online success. A large percentage of ISIS Twitter accounts are located in Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iraq, although the United States chugged into fourth place, not far behind Iraq, among ISIS supporters who included locations in their profiles.
The report’s authors believe that previous attempts to study ISIS activities on Twitter used sample sizes that were too small, providing an incomplete picture of how the network operates and how effective it can be at radicalizing those who read its messages. Previous studies might also have underestimated how sophisticated the Islamic State has become at using automated programs, or “bots,” to pump its messages through a large number of robotic account mouthpieces.
The report’s conclusions will be controversial for many readers. The Brookings researchers thought Twitter’s policy of aggressively suspending ISIS users (begun in earnest after the report data had been compiled, and resulting in a fresh round of death threats against Twitter executives and employees from ISIS enthusiasts) might be ineffective, perhaps even counter-productive.
The effectiveness of the policy was questioned because it is so difficult to prevent radicals from getting back into the game with new accounts after they have been banned. The survey cast doubt on the ability of Twitter’s more energetic suspension policy to significantly reduce the size of the ISIS footprint, although it did seem to interfere with the ISIS support network’s ability to broadcast its propaganda quickly, slowing the torrent of Islamic State tweets by taking out some of the individual accounts and bot networks crucial to spreading those messages. Unfortunately, it seems that Twitter’s automated “who to follow” suggestions are all too effective at pointing users to jihadist accounts, once they have a few terror supporters in their follow lists.
The study’s authors hypothesize that mass account shutdowns could cause participants in the ISIS social web to feel isolated, which “could increase the speed and intensity of radicalization for those who do manage to enter the network, and hinder organic social pressures that could lead to deradicalization.” It is noted that counter-terrorism experts gather useful intelligence by monitoring the online postings of jihadists, and have discussed plans to “project anti-extremist messaging into the ISIS space,” avenues for monitoring ISIS and combating its ideology that would be removed if the campaign to ban Islamic State supporters from Twitter were successful.
The authors also suggest that governments should work together with social media providers to control radical content, waving free speech concerns aside. “Although discussions of this issue often frame government intervention as an infringement on free speech, in reality, social media companies currently regulate speech on their platforms without oversight or disclosures of how suspensions are applied,” the report asserts.
Policy recommendations at the end of the report are rather vague, suggesting that the current approach of banning individual extremist Twitter accounts as they commit terms-of-service violations amounts to an endless process of “putting out fires” as they erupt. The alternative would be a major operation, with the assistance of various government agencies, to take out the entire jihadi network at once, or perhaps selectively interfere with its communications by altering or deleting messages until ISIS and its supporters decide Twitter is no longer suitable for their purposes.
Such a strategy would push the “regulation of speech” practiced by all social media platforms to weed out harassment and abuse into the realm of wholesale censorship, requiring a degree of government support not required for the kind of policing services Twitter and Facebook routinely conduct on their users. Service providers might be reluctant to participate in something like that, although the Brookings team warns that “it is unwise for social media companies to presume they will remain immune to regulation,”and suggests they “get out ahead of the curve by crafting policies and publicly articulating their priorities” because “if they do not bring their vision to the government, the government is likely to bring a much more restrictive vision to them.”