The Islamic State’s Twitter network has been drastically reduced thanks to the social network company’s aggressive disruption strategy, with the suspension of thousands of supportive accounts. The crackdown was in response to calls from policymakers and individual members to prevent online radicalisation, especially efforts to target young people.
Research by the EU-funded project VOX-POL into violent online political extremism finds that the once vibrant and extensive Twitter network run by Islamic State (IS) is now almost non-existent.
However, the researchers also found that other extremist organisations have not been subject to the same levels of take down. As a result their online networks remain robust. These and others that spring up in the future will continue to pose a threat to global security.
In response to this challenge and to help fill in gaps in our knowledge, VOX-POL has developed a multi-disciplinary approach to research on violent online political extremism. This approach includes developing a network of researchers to focus on providing the evidence to feed into European and global strategies against online radicalisation and its impacts.
The research also feeds into improving training for PhD students and young researchers who will contribute to tackling the same challenges.
‘VOX-Pol’s results are helping ensure that EU and member countries’ strategies and policies are based on concrete evidence, experience, and knowledge about violent online political extremism – and not untested assumptions – thus increasing the likelihood of success,’ says project coordinator Maura Conway of Ireland’s Dublin City University.
Technology against terrorists
An important aspect of the project is harnessing and refining software tools to collect and analyse online content related to violent political extremism and the fight against its spread.
These tools were used to examine the fight against IS on Twitter. The researchers found that the majority of IS accounts were being quickly suspended, yet accounts linked to other extremist groups and terrorists continue to operate.
‘The almost exclusive focus on IS’s Twitter activity means that online activity, including on Twitter and a variety of other platforms, of non-IS jihadists, including al-Qaeda-linked groups and the Taliban, has largely gone under the radar,’ says Conway.
In a VOX-POL report entitled ‘Disrupting Daesh’, the authors recommend that researchers should expand their focus to other platforms besides Twitter and to a wider range of terrorists and violent extremists, including the extreme right, extreme left and others.
The researchers also warn that the migration of the pro-IS social media community from Twitter to the messaging service Telegram particularly bears watching. Conway explains that Telegram currently has a lower profile than Twitter with a smaller user base and higher barriers to entry. Users are required to provide a mobile phone number to create an account.
‘While this means that fewer people are being exposed to IS’s online content via Telegram, and are thereby in a position to be radicalised by it, it may mean that Telegram’s pro-IS community is more committed and therefore poses a greater security risk than its Twitter variant,’ says Conway.
By the end of the project in December 2018 other reports will be published on the Twitter activity of non-IS jihadists and the Taliban’s online activity, for example.
The global network of project participants is not restricted to researchers. VOX-POL involves a wide range of people including participants from policy, law enforcement, social media companies, and civil society, particularly those in the human rights and privacy domains.
In terms of researchers, the project involves both computer scientists and social scientists to allow large-scale online data collection and analysis that would have been difficult for social scientists to do without assistance.
They are also doing in-depth analysis of IS and other extremists and terrorists online activities that computer scientists would have struggled to understand without the input of social scientists.
Spreading the knowledge
The project team has presented its findings to the global security community, including the EU Internet Forum, Europol, Facebook, Interpol, Twitter, the UN Counter-terrorism Directorate, the UK Home Office and YouTube.
More than 65 000 users from 181 countries have visited the project website which boasts a large online library of publications related to various aspects of violent extremism, terrorism, and the Internet.