Twitter Is Losing Its Battle Against ISIS

by Clarissa-Jan Lim

It's well-established that ISIS' social media prowess beats that of any other high-profile militant organization, what with its high number of Western recruitments and the polished dissemination of its extremist propaganda. On Thursday, Brookings Institute published a paper detailing the extent of its influence on the social media giant Twitter, which found at least 46,000 ISIS-supportive accounts in 2014.

The paper, titled The ISIS Twitter Census, was released by the institute's Center for Middle East Policy and commissioned by Google Ideas. It analyzes how ISIS sympathizers use Twitter to both trumpet the group's brutal actions and spread propaganda while at the same time gaining support. The figure 46,000 is the findings "most conservative estimate" while its maximum count amounts to some 70,000 accounts.

J.M. Berger, one of the two lead authors of the report who is an authority on online extremism, said:

Jihadists will exploit any kind of technology that will work to their advantage [but ISIS] is much more successful than other groups.

According to the study, the group's "typical" supporters were located in its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, and one in five ISIS supporters on Twitter picked English as their primary language. Most of its Twitter growth is attributed to a core group of hyperactive users, who tweet in "concentrated bursts of high volume."


While the majority of these accounts had no actual relation to ISIS or its administration — consisting of many ISIS fanboys, as they have disparagingly come to be known — the paper's authors said that a minimum of 79 of them could be "official" ISIS accounts, as of late December 2014, including ISIS media bodies and prominent members.

Though the figure seems miniscule compared to Twitter's 288 million active users, it is undeniably a large number in itself. Considering the company's efforts at banning extremist accounts — particularly those ISIS-related — the group's presence, official or otherwise, is significant. In fact, its reliance on Twitter is so heavy that the website's crackdown on such accounts has led ISIS to issue death threats to its staff, as well as co-founder Jack Dorsey, in what could be seen as a preventative measure.

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The founder of a research firm studying brand influence on social media and professor of marketing at New York University Scott Galloway told the New York Times that while he had not looked at data on ISIS' Twitter activity, it isn't inconceivable that the brutal Islamist group had a wider scope of influence than what the numbers suggested — sleek recordings of its beheadings and images of its victims are distributed beyond its initial audience, like many other things on the Internet. He told the newspaper:

The thing that is scary about ISIS is that they have clearly taken content production to a level of quality beyond other terrorist groups. The videos they have produced are the production quality of MTV.

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