A new report from George Washington University’s Program on Extremism found Twitter to be the medium of choice for U.S.-based sympathizers of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh. Supporters of the terrorist group use the social network to disseminate propaganda, according to the Guardian.
The report, “ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa,” released by the university’s Center on Cyber and Homeland Security, notes that social media is a key tool in radicalization and reveals the extent of this strategy in the U.S. It claims that 300 American ISIS sympathizers are currently active on social media, in particular Twitter.
The report also says that many of the accounts that tweet original content (termed “nodes”) tend to get suspended, an action taken as a “badge of honor” within the sympathizers’ network. But suspending accounts doesn’t stop the spread of messages: Others users, known as “amplifiers,” simply retweet material, and some, known as “shout-outs,” promote the newly created accounts of suspended users. “They are adopting increasingly sophisticated techniques to circumvent the authorities in a “never-ending cat-and-mouse game,” the Guardian writes.
As for the traits of individual ISIS supporters in the U.S., the study states that 86 percent are male and 14 percent are female; the average age is 26; two in five are Muslim converts; and more than half have either traveled or attempted to travel abroad. In 2015, 56 individuals were arrested in the U.S. on ISIS-related activity charges — a record number of terrorism-related arrests for any year since September 11, 2001, according to the report.
While Twitter is the social platform of choice for ISIS sympathizers, other networks such as Facebook, Google+, and Tumblr are also utilized, according to the report. The hotbed of online activity is referred to as the “radicalization echo chamber” and also includes Instagram posts.
American ISIS sympathizers were identified by using Twitter’s geo-location software. Additional research methods included analyzing the syntax, spelling, and cultural context of tweets to “isolate Americans from the much larger English-speaking ISIS community on Twitter.”
In terms of iconography, the report states that sympathizers in the U.S. are particularly fond of black flags (a symbol of the terrorist organization), green birds, and lions. The last of these was cited in one particular case study, which found that an ISIS-related U.S. Twitter account was using a picture of the Detroit Lions NFL team as an avatar.
In the words of Lorenzo Vidino, co-author of the report, this research gives a “good” but by no means “perfect” snapshot of the online behavior of American ISIS sympathizers. Twitter refused to comment on the report, according to the Guardian. It did, however, warn that its existing policies forbid users from “[making] threats of violence or [promoting] violence, including threatening or promoting terrorism.”
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