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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Monday, April 20, 2015

Misrepresenting ISIS Social Media

I could spend all day, every day, disagreeing with people about ISIS social media, but I feel a need to comment on this piece, which claims that "empirical evidence" shows that ISIS's use of social media amounts to basically nothing.

There is room for informed disagreement on efforts to contain ISIS on social media and which tactics are appropriate, but such a discussion should be based on a knowledgeable assessment of the facts, especially if the discussion claims to be based in empiricism.

"Consider that ISIS made its biggest strategic gains last summer, before the promotion of its savage videos."

Empirically speaking, the notion that ISIS wasn't promoting violent videos prior to its military gains last summer is flatly wrong. It betrays a bias that pervades punditry, policy opinions and media coverage of ISIS -- a failure to pay attention to anything that isn't addressed to the United States.

In reality, ISIS social media surged in late 2013 and early 2014 and peaked just before the jihadist group swept across Iraq, after which it was knocked back by countermeasures from Twitter. One year ago, ISIS's primary hashtag performed better than it does today, and by early June -- prior to the fall of Mosul -- it was averaging a minimum of four times as much volume as it currently enjoys (its actual volume is comparable, but a significant amount of activity on the tag today involves people spamming and trolling ISIS).

ISIS propaganda was always active and became even more so in the months preceding Mosul. To pick just the most glaringly obvious example, one of its most successful propaganda pieces of all time, Saleel al Sawarim 4, was released in May 2014, weeks before Mosul, and its extremely graphic executions of enemy soldiers were credited in a number of media accounts with contributing to the decision of Iraqi soldiers to flee Mosul rather than fight. And it was the fourth installment in the series; the first came out in 2012.

There is plenty more where that came from (videos and magazines galore). The tradition of ISIS promoting violent video goes all the way back to its al Qaeda in Iraq days. It is indefensible to claim that ISIS social media didn't matter until August 2014, when the James Foley execution video was released. It only requires a basic familiarity with ISIS's media output to know better.

"There is not even a correlation between pro-ISIS Twitter users in a country and its supply of foreign jihadists. The United States has among the most pro-ISIS Twitter users, but has supplied relatively few foreign jihadists."

This is wildly misleading. Even a cursory examination of ISIS supporters on Twitter is enough to see there are vastly more regional supporters than American supporters. Even among English-speaking users, Americans are almost certainly not a majority, given the very substantial numbers of British ISIS supporters.

This misconception could perhaps have been sparked by the author looking at a chart showing a high number of U.S. accounts in the ISIS Twitter Census without reading the accompanying text (page 12, which is page 14 of the PDF), which explained the many reasons why these accounts were not, in fact, likely to be Americans.

In the Census, accounts that were accurately geolocated to the United States through GPS and other reliable means represented 3/10 of 1 percent of the sample -- and less than half of those geolocated accounts belonged to people who were ISIS supporters, making them part of the 5 percent margin of error disclosed in the paper's methodology section. These false positives included researchers, journalists, trolls and curiosity seekers. Geolocated accounts were more prone to be false positives than non-geolocated accounts, since people serious about joining ISIS have a vested interest in hiding their locations.

Among ISIS supporters who are American, however, social media is an omipresent part of the mix. Social media played an important role in the radicalization and recruitment of every single one of the dozens of Americans arrested for trying to join ISIS in the last few weeks alone. I'll have more to say about this over the next week or two, but in virtually every case, social media has played a significant role. When looking at these cases, the empirical evidence for the importance of social media in recruiting from regions far from Iraq and Syria is overwhelming.

"Conversely, Tunisia has few pro-ISIS Twitter users, but has contributed a much higher share of foreign jihadists."

This claim about Tunisia presumes that social media platform usage is the same from country to country. In fact, Tunisians (jihadis or not) overwhelmingly prefer Facebook to Twitter (by more than 300 to one in 2013, although the gap may have shrunk since then). A snapshot of Twitter is important, but it's not a complete picture of how ISIS uses social media. And for that matter, social media is also not a complete picture of how ISIS recruits. The strength of ISIS's on-the-ground recruitment networks varies from country to country. Where it does not have a strong presence on the ground, as in the United States, the social media component becomes much more important.

"In fact, the empirical evidence does not support the simplistic assumption that ISIS propaganda helps the group."

There are other claims in the piece which are debatable at best, including its thesis that ISIS is not getting what it wants when it enrages populations against it. Rather than repeat myself, I will point readers to an earlier piece that directly addresses this question and to the discussion of this issue in ISIS: The State of Terror. While I think this opinion is wrong, it is at least more open to discussion. But if you're going to throw the word "empiricism" around, it's best to get your facts straight, and this piece does not.

Buy the new book ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger.

Buy J.M. Berger's seminal book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam

Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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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

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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.


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