Terror fight's tricky question: Should Islamic State be shut down on Twitter?

Suspending all known Islamic State-affiliated accounts would hinder the terrorist group from recruiting. But it also would 'represent a staggering loss of intelligence,' a new Brookings Institution study says.

Eric Thayer/Reuters/File
A portrait of the Twitter logo in Ventura, Calif., December 21, 2013.

Much has been made of the Islamic State’s social media savvy, and, in particular, its notorious presence on Twitter, through which it has shared gruesome beheading videos and sought to reach out to potential new followers. 

This has led the counterterrorism community to grapple with a tricky question – should it encourage social media companies to suspend these accounts in an effort to shut down potential avenues of radicalization – and stop IS from attracting new supporters – or keep them open to better monitor the jihadist group’s activities?

A new report from the Brookings Institution tackles this question, raising some risks that might come with suspending these accounts. These include, most notably, isolating IS supporters online, which could in turn “increase the speed and intensity of radicalization for those who do manage to enter the network.” 

The report also notes that such a suspension campaign could have unintended consequences. “Fundamentally, tampering with social networks is a form of social engineering,” authors J.M. Berger and Jonathon Morgan remind readers.

The social world they discover within Twitter is illuminating. The Twitter accounts of IS supporters, for example, have an average of about 1,000 followers each, which is ”considerably higher than an ordinary Twitter user.” 

That said, much of the social media success of IS “can be attributed to a relatively small group of hyperactive users, numbering between 500 and 2,000 accounts, which tweet in concentrated bursts of high volume.”

Roughly one in five IS supporters on Twitter selected English as their primary language, while three quarters selected Arabic. The top three locations of the IS-supporting tweeters were Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.

The authors began to launch their data collection project last year at about the same time that Twitter began suspending large numbers of IS, also known as ISIS, supporter accounts. 

Still, the authors were able to conclude that from September through December 2014, at least 46,000 Twitter accounts were used by IS supporters, “although not all of them were active at the same time.” 

Hundreds of these accounts sent tweets with location data embedded in them.

“Unsurprisingly, very few users in the dataset opted to enable coordinates,” the report says, yet “the number who did so was surprisingly high given the operational security implications.” None of the location-enabled users were based in the United States.

Data in hand, the study set out to draw some conclusions, from the philosophical (Is it ethical to suppress political speech, even when it’s repugnant?) to the practical (Do suspensions destroy valuable sources of intelligence? Do they have a detrimental impact on targeted networks?)

On this first question, the authors say that it’s tough to argue with policing IS on social media. “To some extent, regulating ISIS presents very few ethical dilemmas, given its extreme violence.” That said, they offer a cautionary note that “the decision to limit the reach of one organization in this manner creates a precedent, and in future cases the lines will almost certainly less clear and bright.”

That said, policing should not involve shutting down the IS social media network entirely, they argue. “If every single ISIS supporter disappeared from Twitter tomorrow, it would represent a staggering loss of intelligence.” 

That said, “many thousands of accounts can likely be removed from the ecosystem without having a dramatic negative impact on the potential intelligence yield.” 

IS supporters themselves characterized the effects of the suspensions as “devastating” in strategy documents, “and repeatedly emphasized the importance of creating new accounts.” 

Despite the outcry, the study found a suspension rate among IS Twitter users of only 3.4 percent between late 2014 and early 2015. 

The challenge from a counterterrorism perspective, the authors say, “is to sufficiently degrade the performance of the [social media] network to make a difference without driving the less visible and more valuable ISIS supporters out of the social network in large numbers.” 

“The consequences of neglecting to weed a garden are obvious,” the authors conclude, “even though weeds will always return.” 

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