Nuanced communities: Mapping ISIS support on Twitter

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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.

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