ISIS v the West: The battle for Twitter

Friday 26/02/2016

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.