As peace talks over Syria broke down, it appears there is at least one front on which the hyper-violent non-state actor known as the Islamic State, or ISIS, is at last losing: Twitter.
In “The Islamic State’s Diminishing Returns on Twitter: How suspensions are limiting the social networks of English-speaking ISIS supporters,” a paper published earlier this week by George Washington University’s project on extremism, authors J.M. Berger and Heather Perez show that as horrific as the group is, it’s possible to undermine their efforts on social media.
The paper focuses on English-language Twitter. This makes sense for a couple reasons: One, most of the Western world (and especially Western media) first witnessed the events of the Arab Spring through Twitter, though the extent of social media’s impact on those revolutions and uprisings is still contested. The second reason is more obvious: One of ISIS’s goals is to affect policy by inspiring fear in the West, and talking online in English is a pretty good way to reach a Western audience. Twitter, with some regularity, suspends accounts associated with ISIS. The study attempts to answer an unclear question: Does suspending accounts online work?
One of ISIS’s goals is to affect policy by inspiring fear in the West, and talking online in English is a pretty good way to reach a Western audience.
Before the authors could understand if actions against ISIS online worked, they first had to find ISIS users. Fortunately for them, ISIS Twitter tends to broadcast its presence. There was even a list of members for members who returned to Twitter after a suspension:
We collected data from a list of accounts supportive of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) maintained by a user identifying himself or herself as “Baqiya Shoutout.” Baqiya is Arabic for “remaining,” and it is a common slogan used by ISIS supporters online; “shoutout” refers to the process of publicizing new accounts or users who have returned from suspension.
Starting from that list, the authors refined their list of accounts to follow, and then tracked them again after suspensions to see if being suspended had any impact on ISIS twitter accounts at all.
Berger and Perez tentatively answer: Yes. When repeat offenders tried to rebuild their follower counts on Twitter after a suspension, they were met with diminishing returns:
We found suspensions typically had a very significant detrimental effect on these repeat offenders, shrinking both the size of their networks and the pace of their activity. Each user had a different trajectory, with some recovering more robustly than others, but all showed consistent declines over the monitored period.
This is both promising and infuriating. Suspensions, in theory, should keep a user from ever coming back. Like any insurgency, it turns out ISIS adapts to actions against it. One approach is joining lists, or looking for users they knew before.
Other services, like Telegram, are now used by ISIS to host private groups, leaving the ISIS online network somewhat intact, but also limiting their ability to broadcast.
Another approach is tweeting “Baqiya Shoutout,” so that other users on the list can search for and find them. This is as effective as waving a spotlight at night: It makes the user easy for friends to find, but also easy for people opposed to ISIS to find the returning account and report it again.
Yet the most effective way to avoid Twitter suspensions has simply been to move the conversation elsewhere. Other services, like Telegram, are now used by ISIS to host private groups, leaving the ISIS online network somewhat intact, but also limiting their ability to broadcast.
Part of what made Twitter so essential for following the Arab Spring from abroad was the immediate availability of first-hand accounts of action on the ground. If ISIS wants to replicate that kind of impact and reach through social media, they can’t do it confined to private messages.
Kelsey D. Atherton is a Washington, D.C.-based technology journalist. His work appears regularly in Popular Science, and has appeared in Popular Mechanics and War Is Boring. Follow him on Twitter @AthertonKD.
Illustration by Max Fleishman