How Twitter became a key player in the fight against ISIS

In the past six months, the social media platform has suspended 235,000 accounts for violating the site's policy against the promotion of terrorism.

Richard Drew/AP
The Twitter app is seen on an iPhone. Twitter has suspended 235,000 accounts for violating policies related to promotion of terrorism in past six months, the social media company announced on Thursday.

Twitter has ramped up its war on the accounts of violent extremists across its platform.

In an announcement on Thursday, Twitter said that since February, it has suspended 235,000 accounts that it determined are linked to violent extremist groups like the self-described Islamic State militant group. That brings the total number of accounts it has suspended since mid-2015 to 360,000.

In recent years, Twitter has emerged as a fertile territory for Islamic extremists to spread ideology and inspire lone-wolf attacks. The social media giant's efforts to crack down on recruitment efforts have likewise become a vital component of the fight against the expansion of violent extremism.

“As noted by numerous third parties, our efforts continue to drive meaningful results, including a significant shift in this type of activity off of Twitter,” the company said in the statement announcing the new suspensions.

The platform’s efforts appear to be working. In July, the Obama Administration announced that pro-Islamic State Twitter traffic has dropped by 45 percent in the last two years. Furthermore, the Associated Press revealed that the average number of followers on a pro-Islamic State account has dropped from around 1,500 in 2014 – the year the group’s rapid and brutal expansion across the Middle East took the world by surprise – to an average of 300 followers.

Twitter said that while there is no "magic algorithm" for finding and freezing violent extremist accounts, it is pushing to respond more quickly to user reports of extremist accounts, as well as employing "proprietary spam-fighting tools."

Twitter has also become a key platform for law enforcement from nations allied in the fight against the Islamic State to gather intelligence and to counter extremist propaganda.

Governments from countries including France, Great Britain, and the United States have their own psychological operations teams designed to spread counter-narratives aimed at showing the brutal reality of living under the Islamic State, such as the abuses against women.

They seem to be working. At the same time, however, others argue that shutting down accounts by contradicting the values of free speech could work in favor of extremist groups who gain new recruits by playing on the idea that the West is at war with the Muslim world.

We betray our own values [of free speech] when we shut down these sites, especially when we only do it for ISIS and not for home-grown [American] militias of the far-right,” Yasir Kazi, a Muslim cleric and assistant professor in religious studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., told the Monitor’s Anna Mulrine last year. “When we apply it to Muslim radicals, once again this impression is given that this war is only against Islam.” 

“These tactics further enrage our youth and make them feel as if the government is out to get them,” he added. “If anything, these tactics encourage, rather than discourage, radicalism.”

The social media presence of pro-IS Twitter accounts should also be kept in perspective, J.M. Berger, a social media analyst and co-author of “ISIS: The State of Terror,” told Ms. Mulrine.

“The first thing we need to do is recognize how successful we already are. ISIS represents the fringe of the fringe,” he said.

Mr. Berger said a one-month study he did during 2014 revealed that of Twitter’s 288 million users, 46,000 belonged to ISIS followers: “a percentage of a percentage.”

Overall, a combination of efforts to flip the narrative of life under the Islamic State and shutting down its accounts are making inroads. Twitter said its daily suspension of accounts has risen by more than 80 percent.

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