Blogs of War

Hizballah Cavalcade

Internet Haganah



Kremlin Trolls

Making Sense of Jihad

Selected Wisdom

Views from the Occident


American Terrorists

Anwar Awlaki

Al Qaeda


American Al Qaeda Members

Inspire Magazine

Revolution Muslim


News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Resistible Force Meets Movable Object

The 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.



Tweets referencing this post:



", granular analysis..."

ISIS: The State of Terror
"Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger's new book, "ISIS," should be required reading for every politician and policymaker... Their smart, granular analysis is a bracing antidote to both facile dismissals and wild exaggerations... a nuanced and readable account of the ideological and organizational origins of the group." -- Washington Post

More on ISIS: The State of Terror

"...a timely warning..."

Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam:
"At a time when some politicians and pundits blur the line between Islam and terrorism, Berger, who knows this subject far better than the demagogues, sharply cautions against vilifying Muslim Americans. ... It is a timely warning from an expert who has not lost his perspective." -- New York Times

More on Jihad Joe


INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


Newest posts!

ISIS: The State of Terror

Jihadist Hostages and the Shape of Things to Come

10 Things You Need to Know About Reporting on Terr...

H.P. Lovecraft Evil-O-Matic, ISIS Edition

For Global Jihadist Supporters, Islamic State's Ma...

Zawahiri Falls Off The Map, Is Rebuked By Top Al N...

What's In a Name?

Gaza Dominates Talk In Jihadist Finance Networks; ...

Radicalization, Informants and More Difficult Ques...

AQ vs. IS: Fractures Chart Update


New York Pipe Bomb Suspect Linked to Revolution Muslim

The Utility of Lone Wolves

Interview with Online Jihadist Abu Suleiman Al Nasser

A Way Forward for CVE: The Five Ds

How Terrorists Use The Internet: Just Like You

PATCON: The FBI's Secret War on the Militia Movement

Interview About Jihad With Controversial Cleric Bilal Philips

Forgeries on the Jihadist Forums

U.S. Gave Millions To Charity Linked To Al Qaeda, Anwar Awlaki

State Department Secretly Met With Followers of Blind Sheikh

State Department Put 'Political Pressure' On FBI To Deport Brother-in-Law Of Osama Bin Laden In 1995

FBI Records Reveal Details Of Nixon-Era Racial Profiling Program Targeting Arabs

Gaza Flotilla Official Was Foreign Fighter in Bosnia War

U.S. Had 'High Confidence' Of UBL Attack In June 2001

Behind the Handshake: The Rumsfeld-Saddam Meeting