Courtesy of the Brookings Institute.

An ISIS Twitter census shows the group’s scope and changing strategy

There could be as many as 90,000 pro-Islamic State accounts

The Brookings Institute released a study last week that attempts to make sense of one of Twitter’s loudest and most controversial subcultures: the supporters and members of the Islamic State.

Their findings, collected over October and November of 2014, show a fairly robust user ship — the average follower and post counts are 1,004 and 2,219. The majority tweet from Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The report also claims to find some strategy in the user set’s activity — specifically, how users make hashtags trend, and how a tight nit group of accounts releases propaganda.

Researchers used a number of ways to verify users’ locations. Not surprisingly, only 3% of the user set enabled their phone’s geo-location function, and of those the vast majority were in either Syria or Iraq. Other data, such as the location field in their bio or their time zone, tells a different story: of those who voluntarily indicated their location, the most popular location was Saudi Arabia, followed by Syria, Iraq and the United States.

Among the timezones users set, two very odd choices popped up — 234 users chose Hawaii, and 180 chose Arizona. Languages were not as surprising: 73% Arabic, 18% English and 6% French.

Determining gender was nearly impossible, but two telling metrics are the display names and account handles users chose. Looking for gender-specific Arabic words abu (“Father” in Arabic), umm (“Mother”) and bint (“Girl”), researchers were able to find gender-identified profiles among less than 25% of the top 20,000 accounts. 239 accounts used either umm or bint. 4,563 used abu.

2014 was by far the most active year for ISIS twitter.

Account registration dates illustrate the group’s steep rise to prominence. 2 ISIS-associated accounts were registered in 2008, back when the group was among the many combatants in the Iraq war. In 2009, 98 were created. In 2013, the year the group rebranded itself and entered the Syrian civil war, 4,378 were registered. 2014 was by far the most prolific — 59% of all Islamic State accounts were registered last year, totaling 11,902.

Twitter, of course, is a chief way ISIS spreads its propaganda. In an effort to stay ahead of Twitter administrators, ISIS has relied on several apps to automate and promote tweets.

The most popular of these was called “Dawn of Good Tidings.”

“At its peak, it sent tens of thousands of tweets per day. The app was terminated by Twitter in June 2014, silencing thousands of ISIS-supporting accounts overnight,” the report reads.

ISIS members use more popular tools that are less likely to be axed by Twitter due to their widespread use. Among these are IFTTT — If This, Then That — which allows users to post to multiple sites simultaneously.

Perhaps the key to ISIS’s online success is thanks to groups of users called the industrious ones, or mujtahidun, who arrange short periods of sprint tweeting that vault specific hashtags into viral phenomenons.

“Prolonged bursts of activity cause hashtags to trend,” the report reads, “Resulting in third-party aggregation and insertion of tweeted content into search results.”

How ISIS disseminates information on Twitter has changed according to Twitter policy. The company began aggressively deleting ISIS accounts last summer — ISIS, in turn, strengthened the privacy settings on a limited number of regional accounts, often leaving the default egg avatar in place, and prohibiting all but a small number of followers. When it comes time to send out a video or press release, these discrete, private accounts tweet a link and the rotating cast of mujtahidun accounts sprint tweet them to the world.

This strategy is the latest in the long history of jihadi online culture. Shiraz Maher, senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at Kings College London, put ISIS’s networks in historical context for the Guardian last year.

“The traditional repository of this activity was password-protected forums,” Maher wrote. “Jihadists and their supporters could be connected in a safe environment to share information and discuss events.”

With the increasing popularity of Twitter and social networks, Maher wrote, they have lost some control over their narrative, but they’ve gained a far wider audience.

Thousands of accounts were deleted during the study period, which made finding an estimate on the total number of ISIS accounts nearly impossible.

“We estimate a hard ceiling for ISIS supporters in the vicinity of 90,000 accounts,” the report reads, though it doubts the real number goes so high. “We could not establish a definitive upper limit.”

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