A new study of online support for Islamic State terrorists contains surprising implications for stopping recruitment, as well as for using social media as an intelligence tool.
The paper, published by the Brookings Institution on Thursday, tracks tens of thousands of Twitter accounts over the course of months, achieving the most detailed snapshot of Islamic State activity online to date. During the period covered by the study, Twitter began a new policy of suspending some jihadi accounts, allowing the researchers to study the consequences of extremist censorship in real time.
The lead researchers were J.M. Berger, an open-source terrorism analyst affiliated with Brookings, and Jonathon Morgan, a data scientist. Their findings about these suspensions’ effect on terrorist activity challenges a number of preconceptions about extremism and the Internet. (RELATED: ISIS Gloats Over Hagel Resignation On Social Media)
Some terror analysts advocate that companies like Twitter exercise a hands-off approach to jihadi content, claiming that if deprived of a public platform, extremists would simply switch to using other tools, which may be more difficult to track. Others point to the futility of suspending accounts, saying that terrorists would simply start over with fresh usernames in an endless game of “Whac-A-Mole.”
But according to Berger and Morgan, cracking down on key ISIS supporters has a palpable effect on Twitter activity. Since Twitter’s crackdown on jihadi content in September 2014, they write, “more than 8 percent of online activity by ISIS supporters is now being dedicated to rebuilding the network,” devoting less time to recruitment, propaganda and other activities. And overall, supporters eventually slowed in creating new accounts to replace their suspended ones, showing that they “were wearying of the battle with Twitter.”
In other words, even minor pruning of terrorists’ access to online platforms can hamper the network’s effectiveness. It can also isolate the “base” which ISIS hopes to reach: “as suspensions contract the network, members increasingly talk to each other rather than to outsiders.”
Others object to censorship of extremist material on First Amendment grounds, claiming that a sloppy law to remove terrorists from the Internet could also be used to restricting other forms of objectionable speech. Berger and Morgan acknowledge that nuanced lawmaking is “something [government] has not traditionally excelled at,” and that social media companies — which already have substantive policies of their own regarding inappropriate content — ought to take the lead in combating terrorist material.
The authors’ research includes substantial data on the sub-network structure of online supporters. They suggest platforms such as Twitter can use their technique to locate key nodes and break the network into smaller, less powerful “clusters.”
This way, the platform can remain a valuable intelligence analysis tool for government and private anti-terrorism efforts, while curtailing the group’s influence.
Berger and Morgan do recognize potential drawbacks to their proposed approach. If staunch ISIS supporters become more isolated and embattled on Twitter, more casual jihadi sympathizers may become more quickly radicalized. As they put it, “when we segregate members of ISIS social networks, we are, to some extent, also closing off potential exit ramps.”
On the other hand, isolating radicals online also raises the barrier to exposure for potential “lone wolves” outside of core Islamic State territory. Mentally ill people would especially face more difficulty accessing images of the group’s showy violence.
Brookings’ recommendations come at a time when many in government, as well as in the social web industry, seek to respect free speech while also keeping objectionable content from public view. “Countering violent extremism” is the latest buzzword in counterterrorism, and law enforcement is increasingly concerned with the causes of domestic radicalization.
Berger and Morgan’s approach, which proposes a strategic attack on hundreds of users in a sea of hundreds of thousands, may provide authorities and private media companies with a way forward
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