Foreign Policy Blogs

Twitter, ISIS and Social Media Whack-a-Mole

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Last week, Twitter announced that it suspended 125,000 accounts since the middle of 2015 that it suspected of “threatening or promoting terrorist acts, primarily related to ISIS.” This statement was the first of its kind from one of the world’s most popular social media platforms and a favorite among extremist groups.

Twitter’s actions against ISIS accounts are not unique. Internet companies, especially those that manage massive social media platforms, have been combating a flood of terrorist propaganda that is saturating the digital landscape.

However, Twitter’s very public statement amounts to a declaration of war against ISIS contrasts with its contemporaries; many of whom chose to take a far less transparent stand in publicizing suspension activities against ISIS and other extremist groups.

ISIS has become so popular so fast that governments are struggling to keep up with the parasitic spread of its appeal. Twitter, being the preferred medium for recruitment, is facing a formidable challenge in its attempt to stop or, at the very least, stymie the proliferation of social media based propaganda operations.

The apocalyptic narrative ISIS is preaching has been buoyed by a grasp on the importance of creating and harnessing a prolific social media campaign that is capable of broadcasting a compelling narrative interlaced with religious extremism: in essence creating a Jihadist highlight reel showcasing its accomplishments to adherents across the globe.

The skills demonstrated on social media platforms are not that dissimilar to what the average millennial is capable of doing, but ISIS is the first terrorist organization to use it to such great effect. The ability of ISIS to spin the narrative to fit specific objectives makes offering up a counter-narrative very challenging—especially considering the lack of credibility Western nations have in regions where ISIS’ message is most popular. As long as ISIS is perceived to be winning the fight to establish a caliphate, whether based in fact or fiction, that message will continue to attract followers.

Twitter has dedicated a considerable amount of time and resources into identifying and suspending ISIS-related Twitter accounts. Unfortunately, given the nature of social media platforms and the anonymity of the internet in general, its efforts to curb ISIS participation is becoming a frustrating game of “whack-a-mole”; but that’s not to say that these efforts are without merit. The ramifications of not trimming the proverbial weeds, as it were, would be incredibly harmful, especially considering the alarming rate of metastasis in ISIS’s presence on social media.

It requires a tremendous amount of effort for ISIS to reconstitute social media networks that have been lost to account suspension—especially the type of massive crackdowns that Twitter announced. The rationale behind utilizing a comprehensive campaign of account suspensions to curb ISIS participation on Twitter is simple: if ISIS is spending its time recreating social media accounts lost to suspensions then it will spend less time spent actually operating those accounts to create and disseminate propaganda.

A study conducted by the Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World found that in September 2014, 8% of ISIS’s online activity was being dedicated to reconstituting its social media network as a result of increased suspensions. The Brookings’ study also states “the pace of account creations has lagged behind the pace of suspensions,” which is a positive sign that an increased suspension regime can have a significant impact.

Jared Cohen, Director of Google Ideas and Senior Fellow at The Council on Foreign Relations, while speaking at the Royal Institute of International Affairs discussed the idea of relegating ISIS to the outer fringes of the Internet, into the dark Web, the open-source network that lets you navigate the Internet anonymously—known as Tor.

These obscure and far-flung regions of the Internet, while difficult to track and monitor, are also difficult for the average person to access and require a higher degree of computer proficiency to operate—it’s not the prime digital advertising space that ISIS would prefer.

Traditionally, the process of radicalization has occurred directly, person to person. However, in the age of pervasive social media platforms and systemic access to the Internet, the gulf that previously separated a radical cleric in Raqqa and a potential adherent in Paris has been dramatically reduced. In the 21st century, it’s the indirect radicalization of an individual, or “self-radicalization,” that is proving the most difficult to combat.