The isis twitter census march 2015

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A new analysis by the Brookings Institution found, predictably, that few sympathizers enable that feature when tweeting — around 300 of the 20,000 users studied, or 1.5 percent.
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  • 1. The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World Analysis Paper | No. 20, March 2015 The ISIS Twitter Census Defining and describing the population of ISIS supporters on Twitter By J.M. Berger and Jonathon Morgan
  • 2. Table of Contents 1 1 2 5 6 8 9 10 12 14 15 16 18 19 20 21 23 24 26 27 28 30 32 32 33 33 34 34 36 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 47 50 51 52 54 55 58 59 61 62 62 63 64 65 The Authors The Research Team Executive Summary Introduction 1. Demographics of ISIS Supporters 1.1 Estimating the Total Number of Supporters 1.2 The Demographics Dataset 1.3 Data Snapshot 1.4 Location 1.4.1 Inferred Location 1.5 Languages 1.6 Display Names 1.7 Date of Account Creation 1.8 Date of Last Recorded Tweet 1.9 Avatars 1.10 Top Hashtags 1.11 Top Links 1.12 “Official” Accounts 1.13 Bots and Apps 1.14 Smartphones 2. Social Media Metrics 2.1 Tweeting patterns 2.2 Number of Followers 2.3 Number of Accounts Followed 2.4 Follower/Following Ratio 2.5 Suspensions 2.5.1 Number of observed suspensions 2.5.2 Suspensions of accounts created in September and October 2014 2.5.3 Performance of accounts that were not suspended 2.5.4 Partial comparison data 3. Methodology 3.1 Starting Point 3.2 Challenges and Caveats 3.3 Bot and Spam Detection 3.4 Description of Data Collected 3.5 Data Codebook 3.6 Sorting Metrics 3.7 Metrics Performance and Estimates 3.8 Machine Learning Approach to Level 2 Results 3.8.1 Predicting Supporters 4. Conclusions: Pros and Cons of Suspending ISIS Supporters on Twitter 4.1 Intelligence Value 4.2 Effectiveness of Suspensions in Limiting ISIS’s Influence 4.3 Suspensions and Trade-offs 4.4 Preliminary Policy Recommendations 4.5 Research recommendations Appendices A) Notes on In-Network Calculations B) Control Group About the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World The Center for Middle East Policy
  • 3. 1 | The ISIS Twitter Census The Authors The Research Team J.M. Berger J.M. Berger is a nonresident fellow with the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at Brook- ings and the author of Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam (Potomac Books, 2011) and ISIS: The State of Terror (Ecco, 2015). An ana- lyst and consultant studying extremism, he is also in- volved with developing analytical techniques to study political and extremist uses of social media. He is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy and the founder of Intelwire.com. Jonathon Morgan Jonathon is a technologist, data scientist, and startup veteran. He runs technology and product develop- ment at CrisisNET, Ushahidi’s streaming crisis data platform, and consults on machine learning and net- work analysis. Morgan is also co-host of Partially De- rivative, a popular data science podcast.   Prior to Ushahidi, Morgan served as the CTO of SA Trails, a venture-backed startup with operations across South America. He was Principal Technologist at Bright & Shiny, where he led the team that realized scientist David Gelertner’s vision of personalized data streams (“lifestreams”). Previously, Morgan served as CEO of StudentPositive, an education technology company focused on predicting student behavior.  J.M. Berger and Jonathon Morgan designed and implemented collection and analysis techniques using proprietary code, supplemented by a limited number of third-party tools. Berger, Youssef ben Ismail, and Heather Perez coded accounts. Perez also contributed essential data points pertaining to ISIS’s social net- work strategy. J.M. Berger wrote the report. Special thanks are due to Will McCants, Anne Peckham, and Kristine Anderson of the Brookings Institution; Yasmin Green, Jana Levene, and Justin Kosslyn of Google Ideas; and Jessica Stern, Chris Albon, Dan Sturtevant, and Bill Strathearn. This paper was commissioned by Google Ideas and published by the Brookings Institution. The views expressed herein represent those of the au- thors alone.
  • 4. 2 | Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings The Islamic State, known as ISIS or ISIL, has ex- ploited social media, most notoriously Twitter, to send its propaganda and messaging out to the world and to draw in people vulnerable to radicalization. By virtue of its large number of supporters and highly organized tactics, ISIS has been able to exert an outsized impact on how the world per- ceives it, by disseminating images of graphic vio- lence (including the beheading of Western jour- nalists and aid workers and more recently, the immolation of a Jordanian air force pilot), while using social media to attract new recruits and in- spire lone actor attacks. Although much ink has been spilled on the topic of ISIS activity on Twitter, very basic questions re- main unanswered, including such fundamental is- sues as how many Twitter users support ISIS, who they are, and how many of those supporters take part in its highly organized online activities. Previous efforts to answer these questions have relied on very small segments of the overall ISIS social network. Because of the small, cellular na- ture of that network, the examination of particular subsets such as foreign fighters in relatively small numbers, may create misleading conclusions. The information vacuum extends to—and is par- ticularly acute within—the sometimes heated dis- cussion of how the West should respond to this online campaign. While there are legitimate debates about the bounds of free speech and the complex relationship between private companies and the public interest, some have argued against suspending terrorist so- cial media accounts on the basis that suspensions are not effective at impeding extremist activity on- line. These arguments that are usually predicated on very small samples of potentially misleading data, when data is proffered at all. We set out to answer some of these important ques- tions using innovative techniques to create a large, representative sample of accounts that can be clear- ly defined as ISIS supporters, and to attempt to de- fine the boundaries of ISIS’s online social network. The goals of the project included: • Create a demographic snapshot of ISIS support- ers on Twitter using a very large and accurate sample of accounts (addressed in sections 1 and 2 of this paper). • Outline a methodology for discovering and de- fining relevant accounts, to serve as a basis for future research using consistent comparison data (section 3). • Create preliminary data and a path to further investigate ISIS-supporting accounts suspend- ed by Twitter and the effects of suspensions (section 2.5). Our findings, based on a sample of 20,000 ISIS supporter accounts, include: • From September through December 2014, we estimate that at least 46,000 Twitter accounts were used by ISIS supporters, although not all of them were active at the same time. • The 46,000 figure is our most conservative esti- mate for this time frame. Our maximum estimate is in the neighborhood of 70,000 accounts; how- ever, we believe the truth is closer to the low end of the range (sections 1.1, 3.5, 3.6, 3.8). • Typical ISIS supporters were located within the organization’s territories in Syria and Iraq, as well as in regions contested by ISIS. Hundreds of ISIS-supporting accounts sent tweets with loca- tion metadata embedded (section 1.4). Executive Summary
  • 5. 3 | The ISIS Twitter Census • Almost one in five ISIS supporters selected Eng- lish as their primary language when using Twit- ter. Three quarters selected Arabic (section 1.5). • ISIS-supporting accounts had an average of about 1,000 followers each, considerably higher than an ordinary Twitter user. ISIS-supporting accounts were also considerably more active than non-supporting users (section 2). • Much of ISIS’s social media success can be at- tributed to a relatively small group of hyperac- tive users, numbering between 500 and 2,000 accounts, which tweet in concentrated bursts of high volume (section 2.1). • A minimum of 1,000 ISIS-supporting accounts were suspended between September and Decem- ber 2014, and we saw evidence of potentially thousands more. Accounts that tweeted most of- ten and had the most followers were most likely to be suspended (section 2.5.1). • At the time our data collection launched in Sep- tember 2014, Twitter began to suspend large numbers of ISIS-supporting accounts. While this prevented us from creating a pre-suspension da- taset, we were able to gather information on how the removal of accounts affected the overall net- work (section 2.5.4). • Account suspensions do have concrete effects in limiting the reach and scope of ISIS activities on social media. They do not, at the current level of implementation, eliminate those activities, and cannot be expected to do this. Some critics argue suspensions are ineffective because ISIS propaganda is still available on Twitter. Any bal- anced evaluation of current levels of suspension activity clearly demonstrates that total interdic- tion is not the goal. The qualitative debate is over how suspensions affect the performance of the network and whether a different level of pressure might produce a different result (sections 2.5, 4.2). While it is possible to target suspensions in a manner that would be far more devastating to ISIS networks, we do not advise such an ap- proach for several reasons (sections 4.1 and 4.3). • The process of suspension does create certain new risks. Most importantly, while suspensions ap- pear to have created obstacles to supporters join- ing ISIS’s social network, they also isolate ISIS supporters online. This could increase the speed and intensity of radicalization for those who do manage to enter the network, and hinder organic social pressures that could lead to deradicaliza- tion (section 4.3). • Further study is required to evaluate the unin- tended consequences of suspension campaigns and their attendant trade-offs. Fundamentally, tampering with social networks is a form of social engineering, and acknowledging this fact raises many new, difficult questions (section 4.3). • Social media companies and the U.S government must work together to devise appropriate re- sponses to extremism on social media. Although discussions of this issue often frame government intervention as an infringement on free speech, in reality, social media companies currently regu- late speech on their platforms without oversight or disclosures of how suspensions are applied (section 4.4). Approaches to the problem of extremist use of social media are most likely to succeed when they are mainstreamed into wider dialogues among the wide range of community, private, and public stakeholders.
  • 6. 4 | Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings Links among the top 500 Twitter accounts as sorted by the in-group metric used to identify ISIS supporters. Red lines indicate reciprocal relationships.
  • 7. 5 | The ISIS Twitter Census Introduction This study consists of four parts: • ISIS supporter demographics • ISIS supporter social media metrics • A detailed discussion of the methodology used for this paper • A preliminary examination of the effects of sus- pending social media accounts and recommenda- tions for further study and policies The first two sections are based on a sample of 20,000 accounts believed to be comprised of at least 93 percent ISIS supporters. We examine where these supporters are located, what languages they speak, what identifying information they provide, when their accounts were created, a limited view on what content they post, and the methods they use to spread ISIS propaganda and recruit followers around the globe. The third section discusses in considerable detail how we identified these accounts. We believe this is a crucial part of the discussion, to allow readers to determine how much confidence to place in the results, and to establish a framework for future re- search on the performance of social networks. The fourth section discusses some of the impli- cations and questions raised by this study, par- ticularly pertaining to the effects of suspending extremist social media accounts. This section also points to some of the challenges of design- ing a coherent approach among all stakeholders involved in countering the problem of violent extremism on social media.
  • 8. 6 | Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings 1. Demographics of ISIS Supporters Who are the users supporting ISIS on Twitter? Where do they live, and how do they do their work online? These are questions of great importance for anyone trying to understand the scope of the prob- lem and possible remedies. Using a variety of innovative approaches, we identi- fied an accurate dataset of 20,000 ISIS supporter accounts on Twitter. Through this sample we aimed to estimate the total number of accounts support- ing ISIS on Twitter and to create a demographic profile of this group, shedding light on where us- ers are based, what languages they speak, what they tweet about, and how they access the Internet. The demographics data, as well as the Twitter met- rics discussed in section 2, also shed light on the social media strategies ISIS uses to disseminate its messages online.
  • 9. 7 | The ISIS Twitter Census 1.1 Estimating the Total Number of Supporters We had hoped to establish both a floor and a ceil- ing for estimates of the size of ISIS’s supporter base on Twitter. A completely reliable ceiling proved elusive due to the size of the dataset, its rapid evolu- tion, and the complexity of the relationships within it. However we were able to establish a floor with reasonable certainty. During the period of October 4 through Novem- ber 27, 2014, we estimate there were no fewer than 46,000 Twitter accounts supporting ISIS. Some accounts that were active in September but sub- sequently suspended were relevant to the set, and different kinds of information were collected at different speeds based on Twitter API limits. This figure excludes deceptive tactics meant to inflate ISIS’s Twitter following, such as automated bots, but includes multiple accounts maintained by hu- man users. This estimate was derived from two sources of data: • We collected extremely robust data on nearly 50,000 accounts. We estimate that a minimum of 30,000 of these are accurately described as accounts belonging to ISIS supporters and con- trolled by a human user, using the most conserva- tive criteria. We have a high level of confidence in this estimate, which is based on samples coded under the criteria described in section 3.5 and the metrics described in sections 3.6 and 3.7. • We also collected partial data on 1.9 million ad- ditional accounts, as described in 3.8. Because this data was incomplete, it proved difficult to craft a firm estimate, but we believe a minimum of 16,000 additional supporters are contained in that set. With caveats, we estimate a hard ceiling for ISIS supporters in the vicinity of 90,000 ac- counts; we could not establish a definitive upper limit. Based on anecdotal observation, we suspect the true number does not approach this level; however the metrics described in section 3.8 al- low for this possibility. All data in this paper pertains to specific ranges of time when the data was collected, from October 4 through November 27, 2014, with some seed data retrieved in September 2014. Thousands of accounts were suspended and created throughout the period of data collection. Therefore this esti- mate does not reflect the exact user base of ISIS at any specific moment, but rather reflects activity on a rolling basis. The user base at any given moment was likely smaller than the total estimate of 46,000. The only way to capture a snapshot over a more condensed time frame would involve either directly accessing data, with permission, from within Twit- ter’s own systems, or violating Twitter’s terms of service regarding the speed of access of data. These options were respectively unavailable and undesir- able. When coding samples, we adopted a very conserva- tive regimen, detailed below, which likely under- estimates the amount of support for ISIS in the dataset by emphasizing overt support and exclud- ing ambiguous classes of accounts. There are three ambiguous classes of account that should be con- sidered when evaluating these results: • Covert supporters of ISIS: Users who took me- dium to strong steps to conceal their support due to fear of prosecution or suspension by Twitter. Users who took only casual steps to disguise their support were generally detectable. • Pro-ISIS intelligence operatives: Some users who follow accounts related to the enemies of ISIS, such as rival jihadists, would be coded as non-supporters under the conservative criteria we employed. • Anti-ISIS intelligence operatives: These are ac- counts created to appear as ISIS supporters in order to allow ISIS’s enemies to monitor its ac- tivities, which would be coded as supporters (if done effectively). After reviewing hundreds of accounts in the set— with a focus on those that appeared ambiguous— we believe a significant number of accounts in the Demographics Dataset fall into the first two
  • 10. 8 | Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings • Accounts primarily controlled by bots or apps (see sections 1.13 and 3.3) This first round of eliminations left us with 43,538 accounts. We identified a set of 20,000 accounts, of which we estimate more than 93 percent are ISIS supporters, with a margin of er- ror of about +/- 2.54 percent. This set of 20,000 accounts, the “Demographics Dataset,” was used to produce the descriptive analysis in this sec- tion, except where explicitly noted. categories. Nevertheless, most were coded as non- supporters. We did not develop a methodology to evaluate the third category, and the number of po- tentially relevant users remains unknown. Several variations of our identification methodol- ogy produced extremely similar results in the top 20,000 accounts, adding to our confidence in the integrity of the sample. The final metric was more effective at lower ranges as well. The number of supporters has certainly changed since the data was collected; we provide data on more recent changes in section 2.5.4. 1.2 The Demographics Dataset After determining the estimated total number of ISIS-supporting accounts, we sought to describe a representative sample as completely as possible. Because the quantity of data analyzed was too large to allow for an individual review of every single ac- count, we had to sort ISIS supporters from non- supporters among accounts for which we had ro- bust data. Non-supporter accounts in the data collected in- cluded enemies of ISIS, non-ISIS jihadis, people tracking the organization’s activities (such as jour- nalists and researchers), and accounts for online services used by ISIS supporters, such as @YouTube or @Twitter. Using metrics described in section 3.6, we sorted the 49,379 accounts for which we collected full data according to the probability that an account belonged to an overt ISIS supporter. We evaluated the performance of the metrics by coding samples from the dataset using a conservative methodology for identifying visible supporters. We also weeded 5,841 accounts according to the following criteria: • Suspended mid-collection, 90 accounts (see sec- tion 2.5.1) • Accounts with more than 50,000 followers (see section 2.2)
  • 11. 9 | The ISIS Twitter Census 1.3 Data Snapshot Best estimate of total number of overt ISIS supporter accounts on Twitter: 46,000 Maximum estimate of ISIS supporter accounts on Twitter: 90,000 Number of accounts analyzed for demographics information: 20,000 Estimated percentage of overt ISIS supporters in demographics data- set: 93.2 percent (+/- 2.54 percent) Period over which data was collected: October 4 through November 27, 2014, with some seed data collected in late September 2014 Top Locations of Accounts: “Islamic State,” Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia Most common year
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