Among its many other heinous innovations, the terrorist group and self-proclaimed caliphate Islamic State has pioneered the use of social media for propaganda and recruiting purposes – but its success may prove fleeting, as social media companies like Twitter are now aggressively identifying and shutting pro-ISIS accounts.
That’s according a new academic paper, titled “The Islamic State’s Diminishing Returns on Twitter,” published by researchers at the George Washington University Program on Extremism. By tracking the number and activity of thousands of Twitter accounts associated with ISIS supporters, the researchers found that the social network has succeeded in holding the overall number of accounts and followers flat, while some of the most persistent ISIS supporters have suffered major disruptions: “Over time, individual users who repeatedly created new accounts after being suspended suffered devastating reductions in their follower counts.”
Program on Extremism fellow J.M. Berger stated: “Suspensions have a measurable effect in suppressing the activity of ISIS networks on Twitter. Occasional large-scale suspensions, such as we saw after the Paris attacks, have dramatically reduced the size of ISIS’ presence on social media, and a lower level of routine suspensions hold the network flat in between these events.”
The data also suggests that repeated suspensions are so disruptive that they deter ISIS supporters from using Twitter in the long term. On that note, the researchers found that “Network and individual declines persisted even when suspension pressure eased, suggesting that suspensions diminish activity in ways that extend beyond the simple removal of accounts.”
Earlier this month Twitter announced that it had shut down around 125,000 accounts associated with ISIS since the middle of last year. Last year a report from the Brookings Institution estimated that there were around 46,000 ISIS supporters using Twitter at that time, many of whom create multiple accounts after being shut down to counter the social network’s policies.
Twitter, Facebook and other big social media platforms have been working with national governments to disrupt terrorist propaganda and recruiting on their networks. In January the White House dispatched top national security officials to Silicon Valley to enlist tech companies’ support in these efforts.