Twitter reach of ISIS trimmed by account suspensions, report says

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More than 125,000 accounts linked to terrorists were suspended by Twitter in a little less than a year. Experts say that the suspensions are eroding the Islamic State group's ability to communicate via the social network.

While Twitter frequently closed accounts for violating terms of service relating to incitement to violence and posting violent images, Islamic State users became adept at resurfacing with new accounts. But Twitter's new approach is cutting into this activity as well. "We found suspensions typically had a very significant detrimental effect on these repeat offenders, shrinking both the size of their networks and the pace of their activity," J.M. Berger and Heather Perez wrote in a paper published by the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.

Twitter started to suspend such accounts toward the end of 2014, and at least 46,000 accounts suspended within the last year were used by Islamic State supporters, according to a Brookings report. The authors of the GW report argue that the number of users in the network based out of Syria and Iraq has decreased due to the account suspensions. Other factors include the concerns about the security and privacy of Twitter's platform, and the deaths of key social media leaders in targeted strikes

The GW researchers studied the social media metrics related to active Islamic State supporters from June to October 2015 and found that "each user had a different trajectory, with some recovering [from suspensions] more robustly than others, but all showed consistent declines over the monitored period."

One of the reasons for a decline in user activity is the lack of Twitter followers after an account has been deleted. "Over time, individual users who repeatedly created new accounts after being suspended suffered devastating reductions in their follower counts," the paper says -- though the terrorist group continues to make attempts in closing that gap. Typically, users deploy a tactic dubbed "reverse shoutout," in which followers share information on the newly created accounts of suspended users.

"As of January 2016, the Reverse Shoutout approach is still employed by ISIS supporters, but its effectiveness has diminished," the researchers found, because the process is complex and because the catchphrases used in the technique are "swiftly targeted by anti-ISIS activists."

Yet regardless of the obstacles, the report found, supporters of the terrorist group continue to use Twitter accounts and other social messaging platforms for recruitment, operational security guidance and other purposes.

About the Author

Aisha Chowdhry is a former staff writer for FCW.


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