Private, Public Teamwork Needed to Fight ISIS on Twitter: Report

Social media firms should team up with the United States government to work out appropriate responses to extremism on their sites, recommends a Brookings Institution report released last week.

The Institution’s J.M. Berger and Jonathon Morgan last year launched a study to define and describe the population of ISIS supporters on Twitter. Among other things, they found that ISIS ramped up its efforts on Twitter following the suspension of many supporters’ accounts. Twitter froze at least 1,000 such accounts between September and December.

While account suspensions do limit the reach and scope of ISIS activities on social media, they don’t eliminate them and can’t be expected to do so, Berger and Morgan pointed out.

Launching suspensions that cripple the ISIS network more could be dangerous, they warned, because it could isolate ISIS supporters online, increasing the speed and intensity of radicalization, and weakening social pressures that could lead to deradicalization.

The Voice of the Few

There are between 46,000 and 70,000 accounts supporting ISIS on Twitter, the study notes, although it’s likely the true figure is at the lower edge of this range.

ISIS supporters typically are located within territories it controls in Syria and Iraq, as well as in regions where it’s fighting for control.

Much of ISIS’ success on social media is due to between 500 and 2,000 account holders who send out lots of tweets in concentrated bursts, the study found.

ISIS more than tripled the amount of activity devoted to rebuilding its network in the wake of Twitter’s suspension campaign, with users aggressively promoting new accounts to replace those suspended. They directed this increased activity at fewer accounts, meaning users were working harder to promote the top accounts.

The Seduction of the Innocent

While 75 percent of supporters cited Arabic as their first language, about 20 percent said English was their primary language, the Brookings study found.

This is worrying because of the increasing number of Western countries’ citizens, especially young women, who are flocking to join ISIS, seeing the group’s members as heroes despite their broadcasting videos of beheadings and massacres.

“You do run the risk of propagandizing and the risk of luring people like those British girls who went to Syria,” said Darren Hayes, director of cybersecurity at Pace University’s Seidenberg School of CSIS.

Silence Is Not Golden

“If you keep shutting down ISIS supporters’ accounts, you risk them going to the Darknet, which is harder to track,” Hayes said. It also could “spur ISIS to create new applications which have better encryption, and use other channels which are harder for law enforcement to track.”

Broad censorship is not the answer, because “it gets really hard to draw the line, particularly if you try to identify groups through obscure behaviors and not by overt acts like threatening murder,” Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld.

Twitter hasn’t been particularly outstanding when it comes to taking action against people threatening murder or rape either, as woman gamers and bloggers like Anita Sarkeesian can attest.

Twitter did not respond to our request to comment for this story.

Getting in the G-Men

Concerns that joint action by the U.S. government and social media companies could infringe free speech aren’t justified, according to Berger and Morgan, because social media companies currently regulate speech on their platforms without oversight or disclosure of how they apply suspensions.

“Many U.S. companies — and especially Twitter — have fully embraced free speech,” said Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

“They will eventually need to decide if it’s in their community’s best interest,” he told TechNewsWorld. “If Twitter is getting any revenue in ad dollars from terrorist networks, I suspect its executives will find themselves facing a hostile reception on Capitol Hill.”

Twitter “is not always particularly friendly towards law enforcement,” Seidenberg’s Hayes noted, “especially since Edward Snowden’s release of information.”

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

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