ISIS: STATE OF TERROR
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Thursday, October 2, 2014
Resistible Force Meets Movable ObjectThe summer of "ZOMG ISIS TWITTER" has become the winter of analysts' discontent. Twitter's recent campaign to suspend at least several hundred Islamic State Twitter accounts leads inevitably to the grousing of analysts who say it accomplishes nothing (and just coincidentally makes their jobs harder).
The IS Twitter as unstoppable apocalyptic force meme has been in full bloom in several articles lately, but I'll confine myself to this, since it takes direct aim at my comments on the effect of Twitter's recent suspensions of Islamic State supporters on Twitter on IS's ability to game hashtags and disseminate content. Time is a precious commodity at the moment, so I’ll just hit the high notes, and there will be more to come later.
The suspensions, which are not necessarily the work of "the West" writ large as the authors imply, have shockingly not obliterated IS supporters from Twitter. No reasonable person has ever suggested they would, and I certainly have never suggested we can or should. IS Twitter is a movable object, and efforts to suspend accounts are a resistible force.
The authors believe that this resilience of IS's core activists on Twitter means that suspensions have no meaningful effect. But to mount this argument, they conveniently dismiss IS's external audience -- i.e., people who are not hardcore supporters -- as “lazy” and "least engaged" users who are "hardly worth considering.”
This flies in the face of the evidence and renders much of the rest of the analysis pointless. An extremely substantial portion of IS propaganda is explicitly aimed at external audiences, and its creative and resource-intensive methods of disseminating content (hashtag gaming, bots and purchased tweets) show just how much priority it puts on external messaging.
The authors' perplexing formulation of the irrelevant external audience also requires that IS supporters are magically born out of the ether, fully radicalized and fully networked, instead of migrating from the external audience to the internal.
The authors make much of the spread of content to multiple platforms, which has certainly occurred. And yet IS keeps coming back to Twitter and YouTube. Why is that? Because the biggest audiences are easiest to reach there. There is no scenario under which IS propaganda will become unavailable online. But there is no reason they shouldn't have to work harder, and there is no reason that giant corporate Internet service providers should allow them unfettered use of the biggest and best dissemination platforms.
I have several data-based pieces coming over the next several months to address these questions, so I'm not going to do it all in this space, but two charts from my IS monitoring lists provide some preliminary insight into the effect of the terminations.
UPDATE: The most immediate effect can be seen in the composition of my IS monitoring lists. When I set up my monitoring list, for various reasons, I break it up into three equal lists based on the number of followers each account has. Prior to the Twitter suspension campaign, those three equal parts broke down to accounts with less than 250 followers, accounts with less than 800 followers, and accounts with more than 800 followers. As of Oct. 3, to equally distribute all my accounts, I had to set the threshholds at less than 150, less than 500 and greater than 500. This shows that the IS user base is working with much smaller numbers than before. And keep in mind that it's easier to find accounts with many followers, so this breakdown tends to be top-heavy. Here's a chart showing the change:
The size of the lists change over time, partly due to new users but also due to my ongoing discovery of accounts, so these are based on per-user averages. The first shows how Twitter's most recent suspension of 400 accounts affects the "internal" network in samples taken on Sept. 28 and Oct. 1.
This chart shows only interactions among members of the IS supporter base (in other words, the hardcore activists that the authors claim are unaffected by suspensions. The analysis is based on the most recent 200 tweets, rather than time-framed, which means the impact is probably larger, as my analysis technique (by design) results in lagging indicators.
Here's a look at the average number of retweets per tweet by an IS supporter, starting in July (prior to Twitter's most aggressive suspensions) through September, after all of IS's official accounts were permanently banned by Twitter, and the most recent data after the 400 suspensions, again with the caveat for lagging indicators.
This includes both internal and external audiences. It also doesn't account for retweeting bots, a new crop of which was recently launched by IS. Subtract the impact of the hundreds of bots (which I don't have time to do right now) and the drop in October would be even greater. This is relevant as it pertains to human behavior, although the bots are currently a legitimate part of the ecosystem. Among other things, the bots drove links and retweets to the IS propaganda film "Flames of War."
There's also content quality. Anyone who follows any reasonable number of IS accounts has no doubt seen that rebuilding their networks now consumes a disproportionate amount of time. In other words, the quality of the interactions has been dramatically impacted, with thousands of tweets devoted to announcing and promoting newly reconstituted accounts and debunking fake ones that pop up while the originals are gone.
Time and energy spent recreating the network is, at this point, a significant portion of what IS does online (a minimum of 8 percent of tweets from September 29 to October 1, and likely higher), drawing focus and resources away from the business of sending ordinary Westerners pictures of severed heads when they're trying to get sports scores or live-tweet Cake Boss.
The suspensions have also caused IS users to think before they tweet; the heads and threats to execute hostages are in decline, though by no means absent, and when they start to pop up again, accounts go down. All of this is on Twitter, of course, it doesn't speak to "availability" of IS content. It speaks to dissemination and reach on one of the best platforms for driving traffic, as well as highlighting the fact that these online communities can be incentivized to change their behavior.
Many suspended accounts return, of course, but they have to rebuild every time, and the data suggests there is good reason to think they will lose ground over the long haul. We'll soon have enough data to talk about more definitively in the IS context. The early data is very encouraging and I will publish more of it when the book comes out.
Fundamentally, however this comes down to the inexplicable argument I've heard time and again, that in a world where we do practically anything to fight terrorists practically anywhere regardless of the costs or collateral damage, and with too little regard for whether what we do works, that kicking a very small number of terrorists off of Twitter for a small- to medium-gain is somehow a bridge too far, and ultimately useless because it doesn't instantly and magically end extremism.
I continue to be unmoved.
More to come, down the road a bit...
Opinions expressed herein are those of J.M. Berger. Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam and pre-order his new book with Jessica Stern, ISIS: The State of Terror.
Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.
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