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    How ISIS Is Using Twitter To Spread Violent Propaganda, And What To Do About It

    A new Brookings paper takes a detailed look at the issue. Here's the quick version.

    In recent months ISIS has rapidly spread its message and grown its following across the globe. Social media, particularly Twitter, has been perhaps the single most important tool used by ISIS to spread its propaganda and to recruit new followers.

    It has been widely reported that Twitter recently increased its efforts to suspend ISIS accounts and limit the ability of ISIS to use their platform to drum up support for violent activities. Despite these efforts, questions still remain about just how effective—and ethical—this approach really is.

    In a new study for the Brookings Institution, J.M. Berger and Jonathon Morgan analyzed how ISIS is using Twitter, and what Twitter's recent suspension of ISIS accounts means for both the platform and the future of violent extremism on social media:

    The best estimate for the number of Twitter accounts used by ISIS supporters is 46,000, but it could be as high as 90,000.

    Determining the exact location of all ISIS supporters is difficult, because only a small percentage of users enable location tracking. But user profiles claim locations all around the world, though clustered mostly in Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq.

    The average account of an ISIS supporter had around 1,000 followers, though there are over 1,500 accounts (~4% of all accounts) that have more than 5,000 followers. By any measure, the average ISIS supporter has many more followers than an average Twitter user.

    ISIS supporters tweet a lot. The average ISIS supporter has tweeted over 2,000 times over the life of the account, and over the last 200 tweets is tweeting over 15 times a day (as shown in the image above).

    However, much of ISIS’s social media success 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.

    The majority of Twitter accounts held by ISIS supporters were created in 2014, with the biggest spike coming in September.

    Twitter suspended at least 1,000 ISIS accounts between September and December 2014, and potentially thousands more…

    ...But simply suspending ISIS Twitter accounts is not a black-and-white issue. In addition to the ethical question of whether to suspend political speech, there are real questions about whether or not suspending ISIS Twitter accounts destroy valuable intelligence that can be used to combat ISIS, or whether the suspensions can work to actually radicalize an ostracized community more quickly.

    While the authors of the study do not recommend a widespread eradication of all pro-ISIS Twitter accounts, they do advocate for a continued discussion between Twitter, various governments, and other stakeholders about how to enact smart regulations that combat the ability of extremist groups to use social media to advocate for horrific real-world violence.

    For a much more detailed analysis of ISIS’s use of Twitter, and more specific recommendations about what Twitter and others combating ISIS should do about it, read the Brookings Institution paper by J.M. Berger and Jonathon Morgan. And keep an eye out for J.M. Berger's new book on ISIS that's coming out at the end of March.