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Terrorists & social mediaIslamic State’s Twitter network is decimated, but other extremists face much less disruption

By Suraj Lakhani and Maura Conway

Published 23 August 2017

The use of social media by a diversity of violent extremists and terrorists and their supporters has been a matter of concern for law enforcement and politicians for some time. While it appears that Twitter is now severely disrupting pro-IS accounts on its platform, our research found that other jihadists were not subject to the same levels of take down. The migration of the pro-IS social media community from Twitter to the messaging service Telegram particularly bears watching. Telegram currently has a lower profile than Twitter with a smaller user base and higher barriers to entry, with users required to provide a mobile phone number to create an account. While this means that fewer people are being exposed to IS’s online content via Telegram, and are thereby in a position to be radicalized by it, it may mean that Telegram’s pro-IS community is more committed and therefore poses a greater security risk than its Twitter variant.

Alongside the fierce battles that have been raging of late in key strongholds of so-called Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, intense battles against Islamist extremism have also been taking place online, particularly on social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

In our recent research we looked more closely at the fight against IS on Twitter. While we found the majority of IS accounts were being quickly suspended, accounts linked to other extremist groups were not.

The use of social media by a diversity of violent extremists and terrorists and their supporters has been a matter of concern for law enforcement and politicians for some time. In the aftermath of the London Bridge attack in June 2017, the British prime minister, Theresa May, reiterated her warning to online companies, including Twitter and Facebook, to eradicate extremist “safe spaces”.

As one of IS’s preferred social media spaces, Twitter has been subject to particular scrutiny. The company maintains that its strategies for disrupting pro-IS content and accounts have become more effective in recent years. From mid-2015 through to January 2016, Twitter claimed to have suspended in the region of 15,000 to 18,000 IS-supportive accounts per month. This disruption activity ramped up considerably from mid-February to mid-July 2016, according to Twitter, increasing to an average of 40,000 pro-IS account suspensions per month.

Disrupting Daesh
In our research, undertaken in February to April 2017, we sought to determine how effective Twitter’s disruption strategies actually are. Disruption refers here to the take down of content and the suspension of accounts.

Our dataset consisted of 722 pro-IS accounts. Some were identified based on their avatar or carousel image containing explicitly pro-IS imagery or text. Other accounts were included if they had at least one recent tweet (not just a reweet) by the user containing explicitly pro-IS content, such as referring to IS as Dawlah, meaning state, or their fighters as “lions”. The same parameters were used to categorize non-IS jihadist accounts. We excluded so-called “throwaway” accounts that had no followers.