How ISIS’ Twitter Army Works

Mar 06, 2015 at 7:53 AM ET

A comprehensive census of ISIS Twitter growth suggests that eradicating ISIS accounts could rob us of valuable intelligence on the terrorist group. The detailed report by Brookings Institute analysts J.M. Berger and Jonathon Morgan gathered more than 5 million tweets over a three-month period, examining the behavior of Twitter supporters on the platform. The 64-page paper confirmed that much of ISIS’ behavior mirrors average Twitter usage–it’s messy, hard to predict and parse, and mostly insignificant, with some vital exceptions.

Here’s what we found interesting:

ISIS Can’t Control Its People On Social

In mid-December 2014, ISIS leadership demanded that its members turn off geolocation on their phones, for fear that they would give away their locations and put themselves at risk. Berger’s report says that from 20,000 users they examined, they saw 292 who had enabled location on at least one tweet out of their last 200, leaking potentially valuable location data. After the decree, in which ISIS threatened to confiscate and destroy the phones of transgressors, the report noted little change.

At around the same time, ISIS announced they were banning iPhones due to security concerns. However data on phone usage gathered in February showed only a 1 percent drop in the use of iPhones. (Sixty-nine percent of all ISIS supporters’ tweets that contained phone metadata came from Android devices, while a third came from Apple phones; 1 percent of ISIS supporters tweet from Blackberries).

ISIS Supporters Are As Unfunny As The Average Twitter User

Just like regular Twitter users, ISIS supporters were as banal and unfunny as everyone else when it came to filling out profile information. Berger’s team sifted through the free-form text fields in which users denote their location. While some added genuine locations, including a small number claiming (falsely) to be in American cities, descriptions included entries such as “Earth,” “everywhere,” “in the kitchen making a sandwich,” and “wherever the plane’s taking me.” Hilarious.

ISIS Supporters On Twitter Are Like Marketing Flacks

In a bid to maximize their traction, ISIS pulls from the same box of tricks as everyone else on social media. They bought fake followers from marketing firms to pad our their accounts. They used Buffer to schedule tweets while they slept and/or hunted infidels. They jimmied online API mashup service If This Then That to retweet messages automatically–knowing that accounts on a service so mundane were unlikely to be pulled down–and created their own bots and apps to extend their social reach. Klout wasn’t mentioned.

ISIS Supporters Have More Followers Than You

The average ISIS supporter account has 1,004 followers, vastly more than the Twitter average of 208 followers. Ninety-two percent of the accounts tweeted less than 50 times a day, with some not tweeting at all (a concept sanctioned by Twitter CEO Dick Costolo himself). That said, the report gleefully points out that “no overt ISIS supporter had more than 50,000 followers,” and states that “while highly active and committed, ISIS supporters are an insignificant speck in the overall sea of Twitter’s active monthly user base of 284 million.” Also, just like you.

ISIS Has a Core Group Called The Industrious Ones 

A dedicated core of intense ISIS Twitter users tweeted more than 150 times a day, serving as amplifiers for content surfaced by others with lesser reach, or time to Tweet. This group was given a name in official publications: the mujtahidun, or “industrious ones,” and would disseminate content furiously at times when it would have the most impact. Before Twitter started actively deleting their accounts, the mujtahidun numbered as many as 3,000. By using them, ISIS could swamp unrelated hashtags and inject its media (beheading videos and graphic imagery) into conversations beyond its immediate following and sphere of influence. This technique was used to harass and intimidate outsiders, as well as to attract potential recruits.

The report finished by concluding that while Twitter’s largely unsuccessful attempts to run ISIS off the platform accounts may have prevented their message from reaching potential “lone wolf” attackers in the West, there were risks involved in shutting ISIS out. Low-grade accounts were typically the ones that surfaced the most promising material. Without them, much intel on the group might be lost. Said the report:

The challenge is to sufficiently degrade the performance of the network to make a difference without driving the less visible and more valuable ISIS supporters out of the social network in large numbers. If every single ISIS supporter disappeared from Twitter tomorrow, it would represent a staggering loss of intelligence—assuming that intelligence is in fact being mined effectively by someone somewhere.