ISIS spread its reach through Twitter with 46,000 accounts

The Brookings Institute finds that even while the social network deleted thousands of accounts associated with the terrorist group in 2014, new ones kept popping up.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
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Social network relationships among "official" ISIS accounts as of January 3, 2014. The Brookings Institute

Designated terrorist groups have reportedly long used social media to communicate. Al Qaeda and the Taliban have been believed to frequent Facebook, and Hamas has been a well-known devotee of Twitter.

Now, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, is thought to also be quite active on social networks. In fact, ISIS supporters are believed to have operated at least 46,000 Twitter accounts between September and December 2014, according to a new study (pdf) released this week by the Brookings Institute think tank.

The number of Twitter accounts reportedly created by ISIS supporters per year. The Brookings Institute

ISIS "has exploited social media, most notoriously Twitter, to send its propaganda and messaging out to the world and to draw in people vulnerable to radicalization," J.M. Berger and Jonathan Morgan, the study's authors, wrote in the report. The group is "using social media to attract new recruits and inspire lone actor attacks," they said.

The whole point of social media is to let people connect with each other to exchange ideas and information. And that makes sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube perfect platforms for terrorist organizations looking to spread their reach.

ISIS is known as one of the world's most brutal terrorist groups. The group has made headlines over the past few months for recording videos of its members beheading hostages, many of whom were Western journalists and aid workers, and putting those videos on YouTube.

For its report, Brookings wanted to get to the bottom of how ISIS used Twitter and just how far it was able to cast its net on the social network. Besides pinpointing 46,000 Twitter accounts associated with ISIS supporters, the think tank was also able to locate where many of those accounts originated, including Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, United States and Egypt. While the majority of the accounts used Arabic as their primary language, one in five of the accounts designated English as their main language.

These accounts identified by Brookings had an average of roughly 1,000 followers each, which is more than the typical Twitter user. The accounts also fired off more than 50 messages per day, making them more active than the usual Twitter account. The most popular accounts tended to be the most active.

"Much of ISIS's social media success can be attributed to a relatively small group of hyperactive users, numbering between 500 and 2,000 accounts, which tweet in concentrated bursts of high volume," Berger and Morgan wrote.

Most social networks based in the US do not allow designated terrorist organizations to maintain accounts on their sites. Twitter said it has suspended "thousands of accounts" since October 2014, according to Brookings. But as the social network deletes accounts believed to be tied to ISIS, alternative accounts have reportedly popped up. Twitter didn't immediately respond to request for comment.

Reports circulated around the Internet earlier this week that ISIS supporters were issuing death threats against Twitter employees and the company's founder Jack Dorsey, according to Buzzfeed. These supporters were reportedly upset about the thousands of deleted accounts.

"Your virtual war on us will cause a real war on you," read one online post by alleged ISIS supporters. "We told you from the beginning it's not your war, but you didn't get it and kept closing our accounts on Twitter, but we always come back."