Twitter recently announced that since mid-2015 it has suspended 125,000 accounts that were threatening or promoting terrorist acts, with many of those suspended accounts primarily related to the militant group ISIS. Now independent research shows that the suspensions are having the intended effect, reducing the spread of the terror group’s propaganda on the social networking site.
Researchers at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism released a report showing that Islamic State's English-language reach on Twitter has leveled off dramatically since the start of the crackdown. In the report titled "The Islamic State’s Diminishing Returns on Twitter" (PDF version here) the researchers studied a five-month period from June 2015 to October 2015 in which they discovered that Twitter’s increased suspensions of ISIS-related accounts held the size and reach of the overall ISIS Twitter propaganda network flat, while the reach of specific ISIS supporters had been devastated.
Among flatlining reach on Twitter among ISIS supporters, the report also found that:
- The number of readily discoverable English-speaking ISIS supporters on Twitter is relatively small, usually fewer than 1,000 accounts.
- ISIS English-language social networks are extremely insular, meaning users mostly follow and interact with each other.
- The average number of Twitter followers any given ISIS supporter could expect was 300 to 400. Average follower counts were periodically reduced by aggressive waves of suspensions.
- Over time, individual users who repeatedly created new accounts after being suspended suffered devastating reductions in their follower counts.
- Network and individual declines persisted even when suspension pressure eased, suggesting that suspensions diminish activity in ways that extend beyond the simple removal of accounts.
- Average tweets per day (over the lifetime of an account) declined during the period monitored, with a peak of approximately 14.5 tweets per day in June, and a low of 5.5 tweets per day at the end of the study period.
The researchers’ findings will be welcome news to White House and security agency officials, who in January met with tech executives to discuss combating terrorism online. The government has become increasingly worried over how adept ISIS is at using social media to recruit members online, while becoming frustrated with tech companies, who they say could do more to combat terrorist propaganda.
It should be noted that the study took place during the five-month period before the Paris attacks in November, which the authors say likely led to an even greater crackdown on Twitter accounts sympathetic to ISIS, especially on French and Arabic networks.