Armchair Jihadis

Tom Cheshire
Sep 4, 2014 · 3 min read

The Data

About a week ago, we approached Recorded Future, a web intelligence company, with an idea: could we quantify the amount of pro-Islamic State activity on social media?

http://news.sky.com/story/1329640/27000-pro-is-twitter-accounts-since-beheading

This special report was the result.

I thought Recorded Future (RF) might be able to help: the CIA and Google have invested in their software, and they’re experts at analysing open-source intelligence, whether that’s showing how Al-Qaeda have updated their communications following the Snowden revelations, or investigating the shooting of MH17.

They might even be able to use information on the web -availale to anyone — to predict the future, as I wrote in this long feature for WIRED UK.

RF ran sentiment analysis on millions of Twitter accounts, scoring accounts on two factors: violent statements and positive references to Islamic State.

The first thing they noticed was the sheer number of accounts:

60,000 since May

27,000 still active since August 20

August 20 was the day after the video of James Foley’s murder was published, and Twitter vowed to crack down on IS-supporting accounts.

Perhaps more shocking was the reaction to Steve Sotloff’s murder:

10 per cent of all reference to Sotloff’s murder were positive

That number goes up once you discount neutral statements, which made up 75 per cent of references. Without those:

Discounting neutral statements, 42.7 per cent of all references to Sotloff’s murder were positive


RF identified the six most active accounts (these have been removed from Twitter. I spoke to three of them, and will write a companion piece based no these interviews soon. RF has also blogged on their findings here.) Surprisingly, the peak of their Twitter activity came long before the murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

Week 24, when activity peaked, was when Islamic State launched its Iraq offensive.


Two more things from the analysis

First, how the network doesn’t really on mainstream news reports, but produces its own quasi-journalistic material. Most of the references are to Twitter.

This chart combines the top sources since May:

(Interesting that Facebook, The Guardian and The Iran Project are all equal on one per cent).

Second, how resilient the network is.

This map shows Twitter accounts, and the connections between them.

Twitter has been shutting down Islamic State supporting accounts. But as soon as an account is shut down, another one with a slightly different name, pops straight up. Then the rest of the network retweets the new account name, and the operation is back up and running.

I asked one IS-tweeter what he’d do if his account was shut down. He DMd me:

“I’ll be back, they’ve tried this with many tweeps and they all keep coming back, this is a form of resistance for us.”

    Tom Cheshire

    Written by

    Sky News Technology Correspondent

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