ISIS v the West: The battle for Twitter
London - The conflict between the Islamic State (ISIS) and the rest of the world takes place in a number of arenas, not least online, with social-media network Twitter proving a hotly contested battleground.
Just as in Iraq and Syria, it appears that ISIS is on the back foot in the battle for Twitter, amid increasing success at shutting down extremist-linked accounts. In February, Twitter announced the suspension of 125,000 accounts associated with extremism since mid-2015, the first time it openly publicised figures relating to suspended accounts.
Twitter also announced an expansion of the teams responsible for reviewing reports of accounts connected to extremism in a bid to clamp down on ISIS propaganda.
“As the nature of the terrorist threat has changed, so has our ongoing work in this area… We have increased the size of the teams that review reports, reducing our response time significantly. We also look into other accounts similar to those reported and leverage proprietary spam-fighting tools to surface other potentially violating accounts for review by our agents,” a statement from Twitter said.
A report published by the George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security concluded that ISIS propaganda has become less effective on Twitter and that account suspension has proved a useful tactic.
The report, entitled The Islamic State’s Diminishing Returns on Twitter, by J.M. Berger and Heather Perez revealed that “over time, individual users who repeatedly created new accounts after being suspended suffered devastating reductions in their follower counts”. The report looked solely at English-language Twitter accounts.
“Suspensions have a measurable effect in suppressing the activity of ISIS networks on Twitter,” Berger said.
“Occasional large-scale suspensions, such as we saw after the Paris attacks, have dramatically reduced the size of ISIS’s presence on social media and a lower level of routine suspensions hold the network flat in between these events.”
Under pressure from Western governments, Twitter has significantly stepped up monitoring and suspensions of suspicious accounts but denied that there is a “magic algorithm” for identifying “terrorist content” on the internet. “Global online platforms are forced to make challenging judgment calls based on very limited information and guidance,” the Twitter statement said.
Analysts are calling for the US-led coalition to take the next step and wield social media against ISIS as a weapon in the same manner that ISIS has sought to wield it against them.
“For the coalition to have lasting communications impact against this formidable enemy, it requires a similarly nuanced — and expensive — understanding of message delivery and audience segmentation. Twitter suspensions are not nearly enough,” said an article by Charlie Winter, research associate at Georgia State University’s Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative.
The article, entitled Why ISIS Propaganda Works, published by the Atlantic, dismissed Western anti-ISIS Twitter campaigns as largely ineffective.
“Overtly government-directed initiatives are fighting an unwinnable battle. They are too centralised, too rigorously managed and too reactive. The amount of their activity is structurally bound to be insufficient, and its content bound to lack credibility among the most at-risk target audiences,” Winter wrote.
Winter’s conclusions are borne out by facts. On Twitter, Britain’s official anti-ISIS campaign (@UKagainstDaesh), which is run by the British Foreign Service, has fewer than 12,000 followers. Washington’s online Think Again, Turn Away campaign (@ThinkAgain_ DOS), run by the US State Department, has fewer than 26,000 followers.
To put those figures in perspective, a mock Twitter account purporting to belong to Osama bin Laden’s ghost (@ghostOsama) has more than 30,000 followers while the Anonymous hacktivist group’s anti-ISIS campaign, Operation ISIS (@OpiceISIS) has 127,000 followers — more than all three combined.
Still, when compared to ISIS’s presence on Twitter following the recent clampdown, the coalition is winning. The George Washington University report confirmed that the average number of Twitter followers any given ISIS supporter could expect was 300-400 with networks of ISIS followers being extremely insular, meaning ISIS followers mostly interacted with one another.
“#Daesh has lost approx 40% of the populated areas it once controlled in #Iraq. It is losing on all fronts,” a recent tweet from the UK Against Daesh account said using the UK designation for ISIS.
Twitter might just be one battleground in the greater war against ISIS but, given the importance that propaganda plays in the ISIS model, it is one that helps to feed the others.