Nuanced communities: Mapping ISIS support on Twitter

Good narrative strategies requires first and foremost an intimate knowledge of the audience being targeted. Nowhere is this more true than in attempts to counter the potent messaging of ISIS. The terrorist group has become well-known for its ability to attract young people from across the world, including those from non-Muslim majority nations, to commit violence in the name of the ‘caliphate.’

ISIS has been a fixture in the global public consciousness for over two years, from its dramatic emergence in summer 2014 to facing near-decline earlier this year, followed by resurgence with its latest attack on Berlin just weeks ago. Long before Berlin, the group had already become notorious for the quality and power of its social media messaging, professionally produced videos and slick English-language print publications.

Concerned national governments and civil society groups have made numerous attempts to counter the ISIS narrative in various ways, ranging from shutting down followers’ Twitter accounts en masse to creating alternative narratives that aim to discredit the group, its ideology and its actions. But despite all these attempts, attacks against European cities remain a very real threat.

As another gloomy and blood-soaked year of ISIS activity comes to an end, the group shows no sign of fading away. Although it has lost physical territory in Iraq and Syria, the ongoing risk of the ISIS virtual caliphate persists.

A whole range of diverse factors determine an individual’s likelihood to become radicalised, many of which have been studied in significant depth elsewhere. Social media is not necessarily the most influential factor, but it undoubtedly plays a role.

RAND, a US-based think-tank, conducted a detailed research study, published in 2016, to examine ISIS support and opposition networks on Twitter, aiming to gather insights that could inform future counter-messaging efforts.

The study used a mixed-method analytics approach to map publicly available Twitter data from across the Arabic-speaking Twitter-verse. Specific techniques used were community detection algorithms to detect links between Twitter users that could signify the presence of interactive communities, along with social network analysis and lexical analysis to draw out key themes from among the chatter.

Research goals were to learn how to differentiate between ISIS opponents and supporters; to understand who they are and what they are saying; and to understand the connections between them while identifying the influencers.

Lexical analysis uncovered four major groups, or ‘meta-communities’ among the Arabic-speaking ISIS conversation on Twitter. These were Shia, Sunni, Syrian Mujahideen, and ISIS Supporters. They are characterised by certain distinct patterns in their tweets. Shia tend to condemn ISIS and hold positive views of Christians/the West/the international coalition fighting ISIS. This is unsurprising considering the long-standing hostility between Sunni and Shia Muslims and the fact that ISIS is a Sunni group.

The Syrian Mujahideen group is anti-Assad, holds mixed views of ISIS, and negative views of the coalition. ISIS supporters talk positively in bombastic overblown language about ISIS and the caliphate. They insult Shia, the Assad regime, and the West. Notably, their approach to social media strategy is by far the most sophisticated of the lot. And finally, the Sunni group is heavily divided along nationalistic lines, which includes most countries of the Arab world.

Key findings of interest

1. Unique audiences, essential nuance

Telling the difference in large datasets between ISIS supporters and opponents was key for this study. RAND researchers chose an easy way; Twitter users who tweeted the Arabic word for ‘Islamic State’ (الدولة ا س مية ) were considered to be supporters, while those who used the acronym ‘DAESH’ (داعش ) were opponents. This dividing line isn’t foolproof but, based on what’s known about the significance of these two Arabic terms, it seems a valid way to approach the task. Research discovered that although opponents outnumbered supporters six to one, the supporters were far more active, producing 50 % more tweets daily.

This could point to a couple of things. Firstly the outnumbering suggests that the majority of the Arab world (or at least the Twitter sphere) is anti-ISIS; while the volume of pro-ISIS tweets could suggest passionate support for the group, or on the other hand could point to the presence of armies of pro-ISIS bots or perhaps the use of astro-turfing. The latter two could be an interesting case for new research, especially in the present climate where the curtain has been lifted on use of social media bots, astro-turfing armies and persona management software.

2. Jordanian pilot, Turkish soldiers

The researchers also plotted Twitter activity levels for all four groups, between July 2014 (when ISIS emerged and announced itself to the world), to May 2015. Notable findings were firstly that both the anti-ISIS groups (Shia and Sunni States) showed similar activity patterns, suggesting that both were responding to the same ISIS-related events. All four groups experienced a large spike in activity in early February 2015, when ISIS released a video showing Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kasasbeh being burned alive.

After this event, the ISIS supporters activity decreased sharply, while the Syrian Mujahideen’s grew to almost match the Shia and Sunni States groups. Possible explanations (assuming the ISIS supporters are not bots) could include outrage at the murder of a fellow Muslim, and/or outrage at the way he was killed, burning, which is forbidden in the Qur’an. It would be interesting to compare the Twitter response to al-Kasasbeh’s murder with the response to another ISIS burning video, released last week, where two Turkish soldiers were killed.

This comparison could reveal further insights about the nature of the original 2015 spike; or reveal changing attitudes towards Turkey, which has started fighting against ISIS in recent months and has most likely become hated among the group’s supporters as a result.

3. Social media mavens

The ISIS supporters Twitter community analysed in the study showed particular features that made it distinct from the other groups. The supporters group members were more active than the other three groups (despite smaller numbers overall). They tweeted a lot of pro-ISIS terms and phrases, predictably. But most notable about this group was their fluency and command of advanced social media strategy, as shown by their use of certain terms on Twitter. In the study, the supporters group used disproportionately high levels of terms such as spread, link, breaking news, media office, and pictorial evidence.

In general, ISIS has always been exceptionally conversant with social media marketing tools and techniques, in fact far superior to the efforts of many national governments. I would be very interested to see a study that uncovers who exactly is responsible for the ISIS propaganda, what their backgrounds are, and how they were recruited and trained (if indeed they weren’t already expert in this area).

4. CVE insights from Twitter data

Finally, the report offers insights for policy-makers and for those engaged in online CVE efforts across the Arab world. The most important of these is a reiteration of the need for counter-messaging that’s not just tailored, but that shows deep levels of insight into the mindsets of its target audiences. Research like this can help reveal useful themes and connections to build upon.

Also, the ongoing efforts by Twitter to ban pro-ISIS accounts has undoubtedly driven many of them to other channels, most notoriously Telegram. Analysing activity on new channels would be of great use in revealing any shifts in ISIS supporters focus or mindset. Much in the landscape has changed since this report was released, and continues to do so at a rapid rate.

After Berlin, can Germany resist hate?

“Hate is a lack of imagination.”
Graham Greene

Twelve people were killed and dozens injured this week in Berlin, when a man drove a truck into a busy Christmas market. The attacker targeted shoppers and bystanders, ploughing his hijacked vehicle into the crowds in much the same way as the Bastille Day attack in Nice. Isis was quick to claim that it inspired the attack.

German authorities believe the attacker is a Tunisian national in his early 20s, according to identity documents found in the truck’s cabin, where the Polish driver was also found shot dead. Police are currently conducting a series of raids as they try to find the attacker.

Although this latest event in Berlin is as bloody and tragic as any other, it is beginning to lose some of its shock value in a year filled with carnage. It’s just another instalment in a series of attacks on European cities that have targeted Brussels, Istanbul (multiple times), Paris, and Nice this year. In response we find the usual banalities. Politicians tweet ‘thoughts and prayers’, analysts weigh in on TV and in op-eds, while the world expresses sentiments on social media ranging from grief and solidarity to ‘we told you so’, among a range of negative remarks aimed at Islam. Most of these responses ring hollow; they’ve been said so many times already. But the anti-Islam ones are more serious than most, as for Western societies they herald yet another step down a frightening rabbit hole.

The anti-Islam, anti-refugee view, once the preserve of those at the far-right margins, is now making its way into everyday discourse. Ordinary people can’t help but be shocked at the plight of innocent victims like those visiting the market that fateful day. Far-right discourse plays on their shock and encourages their fear to take hold and manifest itself in growing fear and suspicion of the ‘other’, particularly refugees and Muslim immigrants.

But with the frequency of attacks in 2016 in particular, one could argue that ‘propaganda of the deed’ could be losing some of its potency. The West knows that it’s under threat but seems to lack the ability to counter the origins of the problem. Defeating Isis in Syria and Iraq hasn’t helped, as this latest attack in Germany shows.

The troubled worldview of disaffected, frustrated young Muslims in the West can’t very well be addressed with military action in Iraq or Syria. In fact, this only serves to stoke the flames of radicalisation and lead more people to take up arms in support of Syria’s plight. The difference is, they may choose to attack at home where it’s easier to do so.

So if Isis inspired this latest attack what is it hoping to achieve? For starters this could be a reminder that it’s still here and still a credible threat. Despite recent territorial losses in Syria and Iraq the group knows that its influence extends far beyond those battlefields. Understanding its audience as well as Isis does means that the group can still tap into their frustrations and fears, harnessing those to inspire attacks like this latest one in Berlin.

For Angela Merkel this is very bad news. Her pro-refugee policy back in summer 2015, despite its best intentions, meant that Germany perhaps bit off more than it could chew, without a clear plan in place to make sure the new arrivals were properly integrated. As thousands of desperate refugees headed for Germany, the people of overwhelmed towns and cities started to become resentful. As negative incidents emerged, such as the Paris shootings and the Cologne sexual assaults, so the tide of German public sentiment started turning against refugees, equating their very presence with a heightened risk of terrorism.

Events like these are prime opportunities for the far-right to promote their brand of hatred, fear and division. If they time their moves well, far-right parties can manipulate public opinion and use it to gain political leverage. They already did so successfully in Britain and the US, resulting in Brexit and Trump respectively. France, with the rising popularity of Marine Le Pen, is not far behind.

Merkel’s Germany has been described as the ‘liberal West’s last defender’ in Europe. Although this seems ironic given the country’s 20th century history, it’s a testament to how hard Germany has worked and how far it has come.

Germany has a few advantages that may help protect popular sentiment from far-right influence; firstly, a stronger economy than many of its EU neighbours; secondly, a media landscape that is more restrained and less hysterical than, for example, that of the UK. But Germany’s final, and most important, advantage is that it has already learned serious lessons from history. It has lived through the terrible reality of what widespread xenophobia can bring.

For this to now be undone and for fascism to return would be a travesty, not just for Germany, but for the world. It remains to be seen in the run-up to the next German elections whether the people will give in to the forces that wish to sow division, or instead form their own judgements and proceed with wisdom and clarity.

Update: Since this was published the Berlin market attacker, Anis Amri, was shot dead by Italian security forces in a shootout in Milan.

 

Fake armies: A field guide to astroturfing

“There are invisible rulers who control the destinies of millions.”
― Edward L. Bernays

It sounds so Orwellian; the world’s opinions shaped by vast armies of bots, or by paid groups of teenagers in Macedonia. But far from being a 1984 nightmare come to life, this scenario has become reality; and not just in authoritarian states. Technology is now used to drown out the voices of real people, creating an alternate reality where fake opinions rule and the zeitgeist is based on myths.

What is astroturfing exactly?

Astroturfing is where paid groups or automated technologies (‘bots’) fool the public into believing that certain opinions are more popular or widespread than in reality. It’s used in many arenas, from political campaigning to Amazon reviews. With the increasing influence of social media it’s difficult to tell fake from fact. Astroturfing is especially likely to happen whenever the interests of big business come into conflict with those of the public, for example climate change and big oil, or lung cancer and tobacco companies. To challenge scientifically proven fact should be an impossible endeavour, as surely nothing is more sacred than fact? But in a world led by fake news and paid opinion, the word of experts has been cheapened. In fact, many people no longer trust experts at all. This was demonstrated to devastating effect this year during the EU referendum in the UK, and the presidential elections in the United States.

When did astroturfing begin?

Astroturfing is not a phenomenon of the digital age. It’s been going on since before social media began. Back in the days of print newspapers, so-called ‘concerned residents’ would send a barrage of letters to the editor, especially around election times, to protest against certain policies or candidates. Now that newspapers have gone online the armies of astroturfers have headed to the nearest obvious outlet: the comment sections. From there, it’s an easy step to create multiple identities and start posting comments. Forums are another prime target for astroturfers, along with blogs and of course, social media. Have you ever felt a sense of despair when reading the comments under a newspaper article posted on Facebook? They seem to bring out the worst of human nature, but some of them could be astroturfers. In our low moments, when we feel the world is doomed to a constant cycle of bigotry, xenophobia and fear, perhaps we’d do well to remind ourselves that the rabid anti-Muslim or anti-foreigner comments online could simply be the work of some bot army.

What’s the role of technology in all this?

As technology advances further, astroturfing gets more sophisticated. Russia has a particular talent for harnessing the power of fake opinion on a massive scale, using something called ‘persona management software’. This software creates bot armies that use fake IP addresses to hide their location, along with generating authentic-looking ‘aged’ profiles. There’s almost no way to tell bot from human – and that’s where the real danger lies. Fake opinion en masse can have alarming results; shifting the social and political mood and whipping people up into hysteria over issues minor or even non-existent.

Thanks to the online echo chambers that we live in these days, fake opinion can spread with ease once sown. It becomes further reinforced and legitimised by ongoing social sharing and discussion. Most social media users get their news from within a bubble, as algorithms do their utmost to show only the updates that the user is most likely to engage with. This means there’s less chance of people being shown opinions that challenge their existing worldview. That’s a recipe for disaster – and it’s one that we’ve only just begun to understand the significance of.

What are the implications of astroturfing?

Politics in 2016 is fishy business. In particular, the Trump election campaign is extremely suspicious. There have been claims that Russia used its cyber warfare prowess to interfere in the US elections; in the end putting Trump in command of the country. Notably, Russia has been accused of using its hackers to access Wikileaks to produce a leak of thousands of incriminating emails supposedly sent by Hillary Clinton. This move eroded public trust in Clinton and narrowed the gap between candidates by double digits. Again, like astroturfing, this technique is not new. Orchestrating the right conditions to encourage people to act in a certain way has been used for decades. The father of propaganda, Edward Bernays, used it to great effect in the early 20th century, to sell pianos and bacon, and cause regime change in Guatemala.

Having Trump in power is very much in Russia’s interests. Trump is inexperienced in politics, especially foreign policy, making him very much open to manipulation from afar. He has a reputation for being greedy, meaning he can be easily bought. He has already said publicly that he favours anon-interventionist military policy abroad. For the Kremlin, a Trump presidency is Russia’s very own puppet in the White House. It’s the Cold War revisited, with Russia scoring a massive coup against the US. Only this time Russia has technology on its side, propelling its influence all the way into the corridors of American power. The Soviets couldn’t have hoped for anything like it.

Controlling the zeitgeist via propaganda and astroturfing has reached new heights in this fundamentally connected age where the concept of ‘post-truth’ is rapidly gaining currency. That’s a serious concern; it makes a mockery of democracy and free speech, destroying the validity of the internet as a forum for useful online debate. Soon we won’t know what’s bot and what’s not. In this post-truth, Trump-tainted era, one could well argue that is already the case.

Ranking CVE effectiveness around the world

Ranking countries and cities on their various merits is a familiar concept to practitioners of place branding. Many rankings currently exist, assessing everything from a nation’s dollar brand value to the level of good deeds it contributes to the world as a whole.

You’ve probably heard of the latest rankings of ‘World’s Happiest Countries’ (with Sweden, Denmark or Bhutan usually leading), or perhaps ‘World’s Most Violent Cities’ (a death knell for the unfortunate winner’s tourism industry). These rankings are usually based on hard data (e.g. census data, statistics on violent crime, value of exports, etc), combined with results from various surveys that assess people’s perceptions of the country in question.

The recently released Global Terrorism Index (2016 edition) combines approaches from country branding and terrorism studies to create an index that measures levels of terrorism activity affecting 162 countries (although some of these do not show any activity whatsoever). The index attempts to systematically rank the countries based on levels of terrorism activity.

Unsurprisingly (but perhaps contrary to widespread belief…), the ranking is topped by Iraq, closely followed by Afghanistan (2nd), Nigeria (3rd), Pakistan (4th) and Syria (5th). Together, these five countries accounted for 72% of all terrorism-related deaths in 2015. In contrast, the highest-ranked Western country on the index is France, ranking at number 29.

The GTI is a useful exercise, producing valuable insights into the economic and social impact of terrorism, while also examining the drivers that increase its likelihood in the first place. Terrorism has become the biggest global fear of our time, but the GTI helps put Western fears into perspective. As always, it is not the West that suffers most from terrorism.

Despite ISIS having fallen out of the spotlight in recent months, the issue of global terrorism shows no sign of abating. In fact, it has mutated and arisen in a different (although not new) guise; that of the far-right. In light of this ongoing and constantly changing threat, it is clearly of significant benefit for countries to compare notes on ways to counter violent extremism (CVE), while also taking stock of their own efforts. In light of this, a new research idea comes to mind; one that analyses the effectiveness of CVE efforts around the world. The end result would be a ranking of nations according to their effectiveness in this regard.

Many experts agree that a holistic approach to CVE is needed to help determine its effectiveness. One suggested solution is a comparative scale of CVE effectiveness. In the wake of 9/11, counterterrorism (CT) policy and practice has been largely focused on military and law enforcement measures, which target the perpetrators of attacks. This approach is right and necessary but also overly narrow; failing to fully address the conditions that drive groups and individuals into violent extremism in the first place.

More recently, a combination of better research and concerted efforts by a number of high-level government officials has highlighted the need for prevention measures that deal with the threat in a more sustainable and strategic way. Doing that requires measuring whether or not progress is being made. At present, there is no common set of indicators to assess CVE progress. There is also a distinct lack of compiled data on the effectiveness of CVE efforts around the world.

The proposed CVE Effectiveness Index would address these gaps, drawing on lessons learned from the Global Terrorism Index, along with other relevant indices, including the Good Country Index, the Digital Country Index, the Global Peace Index, and the Freedom House indices.

The new index would potentially track CVE progress (or lack of) across all relevant countries, based on indicators developed and data generated by civil society, combined with a layer of big data and sentiment analysis. A ‘whole of society’ approach should be adopted throughout the project, with strong focus on the role of civil society and community actors in driving national CVE efforts.

To construct a useful index a range of quantitative and qualitative data would be needed. Possible sources could include census data, the World Values Survey, safety/security perceptions survey, government data on various indicators related to terrorist activity/recruitment/incarceration, along with conducting social media sentiment analysis that targets online conversations within the country in question.

Once all the data sets have been fully analysed and the ranking compiled, the results should be displayed for easy access using a dedicated online platform, which would include a world map (using Tableau or similar tool) and drill-downs of data by country (and city/neighbourhood, if data allows).

Much work is still needed to decide on the most pertinent data, along with devising a suitable framework for measurement. One possible framework would approach the data on three levels. The top level would be ‘communications’, (including how effective the country is at monitoring online comms, conducting takedowns of extremist materials, shutting down user accounts, creating and spreading digital counter-narratives, and so on).

The next level down would be ‘community’. This level would analyse effectiveness of the country’s efforts to create outreach and dialogue mechanisms with communities, including grants and capacity-building measures toward CVE objectives. In addition, are there any CVE training programmes in place for individuals and groups working in law, social work, education and healthcare? If so, the effectiveness of these would be analysed, according to measures yet to be determined.

And lastly, the ‘individual’ level. This would include assessing whether the country has any intervention programmes designed to identify, dissuade, counsel, and mentor individuals at risk of committing to extremist violence. If so, how effective are they?

As well as data from sources such as the census, World Values Survey, perceptions surveys, etc, the proposed study should also include a layer of data gleaned from listening to social media conversations in the country being studied.

To achieve this, tools such as Crimson Hexagon could be used to gather data and analyse sentiment from across social media channels. In 2011, Crimson Hexagon conducted a research project to determine European and Arab sentiment regarding the Syrian war. Data gathering involved training an algorithm to look for patterns in posts and mentions of keywords relating to the war and to Syrian refugees.

Doing this for the CVE index would enable researchers to determine overall public sentiment as well as highlight any significant shifts in sentiment around keywords related to terrorism and violent extremism.

To make this index a reality the next step would be to select a range of data sources to measure. How accessible and reliable are they likely to be? Will every country be able to offer the same data sources? Then, it would be necessary to narrow down the framework and decide on the final version, decide which resources would be needed, create a timetable for delivery, look for partners, and seek sources of funding.

Shifting realities: The art of propaganda

“Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”
– Noam Chomsky

Reconfiguring reality

Edward Bernays, who some call the ‘father of propaganda’, had an approach to PR that was ground-breaking in his time. He didn’t just try to push the features of a product or an idea, as so many ad-men were doing in those days. Instead, Bernays created campaigns that attempted to shift society’s configuration of reality, to create fertile conditions and a perceived ‘need’ for the product or idea he’d been tasked to peddle.

For example, when Bernays was marketing bacon to the American public, via the ad vehicle of a ‘hearty breakfast’, he assembled a panel of doctors and persuaded them to give bacon their seal of approval. With expert approval of the product, a shift could now begin in the population’s perceptions of reality, eventually reaching the point where it would see bacon as the perfect breakfast item.

The foundations had been laid; now the selling could happen with ease. Bacon started to fly off the shelves, and soon became embedded in the American social psyche as the perfect, filling breakfast, where it remains to this day, despite much evidence to the contrary. Bernays’ aim was long-term; not to persuade the buyer that they needed the product right now, but to ‘transform the buyer’s very world’ so that the product appeared to be utterly desirable.

From products to politics

Bernays also applied this technique, far more dangerously, to political campaigning. In 1953 he used it on behalf of the United Fruit Company, to orchestrate a campaign that brought down the government of Guatemala and turned it into a fascist dictatorship – all to create more suitable conditions for United Fruit to make more profits. The campaign began by creating and spreading the myth that Guatemala was at risk of communist subversion.

Once this myth became widely believed, the United Fruit Company was able to persuade the Eisenhower administration, via the CIA, to overthrow the democratically elected government of Guatemala. What was in it for United Fruit? An uninterrupted source of bananas and pineapples, picked cheaply by local labour and sold for big profits in the United States.

The newest propaganda 

If propagation of such a myth could cause regime change in the 50s, a pre-digital age, what could similar campaigns achieve today, with so many more tools at propagandists’ disposal? Bernay’s calculating antics with United Fruit offer parallels with today’s alarming rise of the so-called ‘alt-right’ movement. This movement seemingly emerged from nowhere, but from there, became influential enough to propel Donald Trump into the White House, borne on a swelling tide of populist fear, hatred, and bigotry.

Among other things, Trump voters responded to a constant tide of media messages detailing horror stories of terrorist attacks and ISIS atrocities. The link between those stories and Muslims, refugees (mainly Muslims) and foreigners in general was cleverly and cynically drawn.

Once the seeds of this hysteria took root, it became easy to stoke it high enough to shift the public’s perceptions of reality. In short, to create fertile conditions for the ‘alt-right’ to go mainstream and elect their presidential candidate. Or, over the Atlantic, for the public to vote against their interests and decide on Brexit. Both outcomes were so extreme that many didn’t expect them. But, just as Bernays did all those years ago, with products as mundane as bacon and pianos, so these campaigns were once more executed to a tee. The conditions were created, and the ‘product’ quickly sold itself.

Emotion over reason

Critics of Bernays contend that the public is not one big mass that can be easily manipulated, with opinions drip-fed into their passively waiting brains. This critique is especially relevant in these days of independent media, where alternative opinions can be sought at the expense of a simple Google search. It’s valid, to an extent, but on the other hand the power of emotion, especially fear, is such that it can override the logical parts of the human brain. When this happens, the resulting fight or flight response can make even the most logical human being abandon reason for emotion.

The pervasive power of media messages is hastened along even further by the enormous reach of social media, distilled into a concentrated force by people’s own digital echo chambers, until it finally seeps out to unveil a grand result – a fearful population that no longer knows what’s true and what’s not. In this milieu, fear of the ‘other’ seems to make perfect sense. And who better to save us than a self-styled strong leader, a straight-talker who refuses to be bound by political correctness, who makes lofty promises for change that would seem to quell our nastiest fears?

Perhaps it really is all a big propaganda campaign and populations on both sides of the Atlantic have fallen for it. The question remains now – who stands to benefit? And who is running the show?