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.

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.

All’s not right with the alt-right

 

“Intolerance betrays want of faith in one’s cause”

– Mahatma Gandhi

The rise of radicalisation has been closely mirrored by the rise of extreme right-wing groups, or “alt-right” (alternative right) as they have come to be known.  The media focuses heavily on the former, but tends to neglect the latter. But they are both part of the same cycle of fear, therefore deserve equal attention and analysis.

What is the alt-right?

The alt-right movement started in the US as a mainly online phenomenon. Its proponents believe that existing Western governments are fatally flawed. They criticise democracy and rule of the people by the people. But this in itself is not the biggest issue. The main facet of alt-right ideology is its obsessive focus on race, specifically on white supremacy and the belief that different races ‘should be kept apart’. This manifests itself clearly in Donald Trump’s claim that the US should build a wall between itself and Mexico. His arguments to ban Muslims from entering the country also fit the alt-right ideology.

Alt-right proponents like Trump because they believe he represents the ultimate in free speech and tearing down the political correctness that they despise so much. The views of the alt-right are seen as anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and white supremacist. According to NPR, the alt-right movement mostly consists of young white men “who see themselves first and foremost as champions of their own demographic. However, apart from their allegiance to their “tribe,” as they call it, their greatest points of unity lie in what they are against: multiculturalism, immigration, feminism and, above all, political correctness.”

Donald Trump is the most prominent figurehead of the alt-right, with his rhetoric of hatred and division. The growth of this movement, which is especially rampant on social media, represents a worrying trend towards fascist viewpoints becoming mainstream. Those heady, hopeful days when Obama got elected feel like a distant memory. It almost feels like the rise of the alt-right is a backlash, driven by their simmering outrage built up over eight years of having a black, Muslim-named president in the White House.

Where did it come from?

Although extreme right-wing ideas of various stripes have been around in America (and to a lesser extent the UK and Europe) for many years, they have largely stayed outside the mainstream. But the Trump campaign has given extreme right ideas greater legitimacy, presenting their proponents with the opportunity to emerge from the woodwork and air their views. Indeed, the leader of Trump’s campaign, Stephen Bannon, until recently also led a conservative website called Breitbart News, which he referred to as “the platform for the alt-right”.

How is alt-right different to mainstream conservatism?

Alt-right followers tend to see conservatives as weak, believing that their support for racist and anti-Semitic ideas is not strong enough. The alt-right coined the term “cuckservative” (‘conservative’ + ‘cuckold’) to disparage mainstream right-wingers. The term refers to white Christian conservatives who supports Jews, minorities and non-whites, supposedly ‘prioritising’ their interests over those of whites. Identity is a key feature of the alt-right, specifically in how white identity is seen in relation (and opposition) to that of the so-called ‘other’.

What are its key messages, and how does it spread them?

The alt-right is still a loose movement made up of various strands, but its ideology and key messages are very clear. They are fixated on promoting white identity and this forms the core of the alt-right ideology. Alt-right supporters want to ‘preserve European-American (i.e. white) culture’ and reject any form of multiculturalism, pluralism or globalist outlooks. They also claim to promote traditional white Christian values (of which hate seems to be one…) Many in the alt-right support the use of propaganda on subjects such as black and immigrant crime, in their mission to ‘protect’ whites from potential ‘ethnic cleansing’.

Like their counterparts in Isis, many alt-right members are young and internet-savvy. They know how to use the power of the digital world to amplify their messages. Alt-right proponents have a noisy online presence and frequently use trolling as a way to get their message across. In fact, some justify their trolling as a necessary response to perceived ‘bullying’ by liberals, or SJWs (‘social justice warriors’) as they are dubbed.

What threat does alt-right pose?

The rising popularity of the alt-right represents a wider trend towards right-wing social attitudes that has been spreading over the Western world in recent years, driving the rise of Trump and the Brexit vote. The risks stem from deepening of social divisions, increasing hate (especially that directed against Muslims), and making racist ideas become mainstream. This promotes a rise in hate crime and increased victimisation of vulnerable members of society. At the same time, the increase in aggressive right-wing attitudes promotes the exact same kind of social division that groups like Isis seek to ignite. Fearful and divided societies turn against one another, producing disillusioned individuals seeking a cause greater than themselves. This is where extremists come from. And we must not forget, extremists are not only Isis, but also alt-right.

How can it be counteracted?

Liberals often feel themselves to be superior to the ‘barbaric’ alt-right. Arguably, both groups could benefit from understanding what drives the other side. Liberals tend to live in bubbles, surrounded by people with similar worldviews. The social media echo chamber effect only amplifies this effect, excluding all dissenting viewpoints from the user’s immediate social media feed. But we need to understand what drives people to certain views. They believe that white identity is at stake; but what has caused them to think so? Are their views rooted in fear of losing their identity?