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Around 50,000 Twitter Accounts Operating On Behalf Of ISIS

Much ink has been spilled on ISIS’s activity on Twitter, but basic questions about the group’s social media strategy remain unanswered. In a new Brookings Institution analysis paper, J.M. Berger and Jonathon Morgan answer fundamental questions about how many Twitter users support ISIS, who and where they are, and how they participate in its highly organized online activities.

Previous analyses of ISIS’s Twitter reach have relied on limited segments of the overall ISIS social network. Berger and Morgan say the small, cellular nature of their network—and the focus on particular subsets within the network such as foreign fighters—may create misleading conclusions. This information vacuum, they added, extends to discussions of how the West should respond to the group’s online campaigns.

Berger and Morgan present a demographic snapshot of ISIS supporters on Twitter by analyzing a sample of 20,000 ISIS-supporting Twitter accounts. Using a sophisticated and innovative methodology, the authors map the locations, preferred languages and number and type of followers of these accounts.

The reports stated there are at least 46,000 Twitter accounts operating on behalf of ISIS. This figure could be much higher, with the authors suggesting the maximum number could be as many as 90,000. Unsurprisingly, 2014 saw the biggest increase to date in new accounts created on behalf of ISIS.

As regular readers of Homeland Security Today are aware, we have have done extensive reporting on the social media activity of jihadi groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda in recent months.

Typical ISIS supporters were located within the organization’s territories in Syria and Iraq as well as in regions contested by ISIS. Hundreds of ISIS-supporting accounts sent tweets with location metadata embedded. Almost one in five ISIS supporters selected English as their primary language when using Twitter. Three quarters selected Arabic.

So, there are a lot of accounts, but what does this actually mean? Is anyone actually following them? Unfortunately, yes. ISIS-supporting accounts had an average of about 1,000 followers each, considerably higher than an ordinary Twitter user. ISIS-supporting accounts were also considerably more active than non-supporting users. Not bad for an organization built on the ideology of shunning Western culture.

Much of ISIS’s social media success can be attributed to a relatively small group of hyperactive users numbering between 500 and 2,000 accounts who tweet in concentrated bursts of high volume.

Based on their key findings, the authors recommend social media companies and the US government work together to devise appropriate responses to extremism on social media. A minimum of 1,000 ISIS-supporting accounts were suspended by Twitter between September and December 2014. Accounts that tweeted most often and had the most followers were most likely to be suspended.

Twitter sporadically suspended ISIS’s primary official account throughout 2014 before taking a more aggressive stand last summer when it increasingly suspended most official accounts including media outlets, regional hubs and well-known members. ISIS briefly experimented with transferring its official accounts to other social media services, where it also was met with repeated suspensions.

Although ISIS’s public, official accounts have more or less been eliminated, said Berger and Morgan, it has adopted coping mechanisms to maintain control over information flow on Twitter. Specifically, its official social media operatives have established small accounts, some of which fly under the radar, while others are periodically suspended and regenerated. These users are responsible for uploading ISIS content to file-sharing and video websites and then publishing links to the content. Other users (known as the mujtahidun) then disseminate the links more widely.

As of January 2015, ISIS had reconstituted its regional accounts with strong privacy settings, allowing only a small group of known ISIS supporters to follow the accounts and read their tweets. The content of the tweets—primarily news releases, videos and photos from ISIS’s various provinces—are then disseminated by a number of other smaller accounts using hashtags. After the initial dissemination, the content is more widely distributed, but at significantly reduced levels from early 2014. As of December 28, 2014, Berger and Morgan’s research had detected 79 such “official” accounts.

Approaches to the problem of extremist use of social media, Berger and Morgan contend, are most likely to succeed when they are mainstreamed into wider dialogues among the broad range of community, private and public stakeholders.

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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