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Here’s what we can learn from how Twitter responded to Paris

French soldiers enforce the Vigipirate plan, France’s national security alert system, as they patrol in front of the Arc de Triomphe on Nov. 16 in Paris, three days after a series of deadly coordinated attacks, claimed by Islamic State jihadists, killed at least 129 people and left more than 350 wounded.  (Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)
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As the details of the deadly coordinated terrorist attacks that wracked the French capital Friday evening began to emerge, heads of state, religious leaders, celebrities and average citizens around the world took social media by storm. After the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the violence, the Twittersphere was abuzz with condemnations of the extremist group and its actions.

Recent studies have highlighted the enormous volume, sophistication and reach of ISIS’s online propaganda, suggesting that acts of terror may help the group attract supporters and revitalize its recruitment base.

[This is why the Paris attacks got more news coverage than other terrorist attacks]

But data from NYU’s Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) Lab — including more than 4 million tweets sent in the 24 hours after the Paris attacks, as well as 28 million ISIS-related tweets sent between February and August 2015 — provide preliminary evidence that violent incidents attract far more negative attention than positive support for ISIS on Twitter.

[July 2015 SMaPP Data Report: The Islamic State’s Battle for the Global Twittersphere]

As the figure and table below suggest, in the age of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, the impact of violent events can be truly global. In contrast to recent ISIS attacks in Beirut and Baghdad, discussion of the Paris incidents quickly spread worldwide.

Condemnation spread virally, around the world

Understanding this phenomenon is particularly relevant, given ISIS’ successful enlistment of foreign fighters from across the globe. While most tweets in the aftermath of the Paris attacks were sent in English, geolocation metadata showed that the responses spanned six continents. Tweets were particularly concentrated in Europe and the United States, with a large volume coming from the Arab World, Turkey, Indonesia and Japan.

This global diversity is also reflected in the top languages used in the 4 million tweets sent following the attacks.

Celebrities and world leaders denounced the attacks

The most retweeted tweets in the SMaPP dataset clearly show that condemnation spread virally. Celebrities and world leaders dominated the most popular retweets in this period, with denunciations of the attacks from Justin Bieber, members of the boy band One Direction, and King Salman of Saudi Arabia topping the list:

  • @ Louis_Tomlinson: Thoughts go out to everyone in Paris . #prayforparis
  • @ justinbieber: #PrayForParis #PrayForJapan
  • @NiallOfficial: thoughts and prayers for those people involved in the situation that has occurred in Paris this evening .. Very sad
  • @KingSalman: The heinous massacre in Paris not sanctioned by religion or rationality. Islam is innocent of these dispositions. I mourn for the French people and invite the world to intensify efforts in the fight against terrorism. [Translated from Arabic]

Here are the patterns of attitudes toward ISIS that we found on Twitter  

The use of positive and derogatory terms to describe ISIS, both in English and Arabic, also provide key insight into how anti-ISIS sentiment dominates the Twittersphere following violent events. The tweeted keywords used to refer to ISIS can provide important information regarding a user’s attitude toward the organization.

[The Islamic State’s attacks on Paris were attacks on Muslims, too]

For example, according to a recent report by the Qatari Research Institute, using the derogatory Arabic acronym “Daesh” to describe ISIS predicts anti-IS sentiment with 77.3 percent accuracy, while using the organization’s official name, the Arabic words for “Islamic State,” predicts pro-IS sentiment of the tweet with 93.1 percent accuracy.

By observing fluctuations in positive and negative ISIS-related tweet volume and content over time, we can gain a more systematic understanding of the online impact of ISIS’ actions.

Analysis of the larger SMaPP dataset of tweets containing positive, negative  and “neutral” (neither positive nor negative) terms in English and Arabic indicates that anti-ISIS tweets are particularly common in the aftermath of violent events. As the figure below demonstrates, in this period, the most dramatic spikes in anti-ISIS sentiment occur directly after the following incidents:

  • The release of a video showing the immolation of the Jordanian pilot Muath al- Kasasbeh on Feb. 3.
  • The escalation of the anti-ISIS offensive in Tikrit, Iraq, in early March.

Neutral-ISIS tweet volume, on the other hand, only spiked noticeably following the release of the Muath al-Kasasbeh video and during the later part of the Tikrit offensive, while pro-ISIS tweet volume spikes are only evident during the Tikrit offensive and following the release of a kill list of American soldiers in late March.

After the Paris attacks, tweets using explicitly anti-ISIS terms appeared 8,062 times in the SMaPP collection, while pro-ISIS terms occurred just 395 times.

Significant media coverage was devoted to the Arabic hashtag #Paris_Burns, which was used by pro-ISIS Twitter accounts to celebrate the Paris attacks. But in the SMaPP collection, this hashtag was primarily used to denounce pro-ISIS tweets or to condemn the Paris attacks. The hashtag appears 2,633 times in the dataset, but mostly expresses anti-ISIS, as you can see in the following examples:

  • @ Amal_Alassaf: I am Muslim and what happened in Paris pains me, not me nor Quran nor prophet Mohammad will be happy #parisonfire #ParisAttacks #Paris_Burns[Arabic]
  • @fawazalshalan: RTSadaAltwhed: A statement from 49 combatant factions in Syria denounces the #ParisAttacks #Syria #Paris_Burns #Da’ash_treachery_betrayal_crimes [translated from Arabic]
  • @ kein_Sitzmoebel: RT @alawadih: Prophet Mohammed and Islam rejects terrorism in all its forms and murder ! #ParisShooting #ParisAttacks #Paris_burns [Arabic]

Retweets aren’t just sounds in an echo chamber. They expose Twitter users to other points of view. 

This pattern of Twitter users expressing pro and anti-ISIS sentiments interacting and engaging online can also be seen in a retweet network of tweets mentioning ISIS between February and August of 2015. As you’ll see in the figure below, anti-, pro- and neutral-ISIS tweets tend to cluster together in the red, green and blue sections of the network diagram respectively. But there is significant overlap or intercommunication among Twitter users disseminating ISIS-related content.

[What do the Paris attacks tell us about foreign fighters?]

In this way, Twitter may act as an echo chamber to amplify extremist voices in the tightly clustered communities. But it can also help bridge the divide and expose online users with different sentiments to one another’s information sources and viewpoints.

In the network diagram below, node sizes are determined by the indegree centrality of a retweet, or the number of users that retweet a particular tweet. The large green dots in the red anti-ISIS cluster suggest that pro and anti-ISIS users are engaging with one another’s content.

Taken together, this brief look at the data suggests that despite violent images and videos playing a key role in ISIS’ online recruitment strategy of “shock and gore,” the killing of civilians may also serve to galvanize anti-ISIS sentiments. This is particularly evident in the loud condemnation of the Paris attacks on Twitter by diverse leaders in the global Muslim community, including King Salman, imamsscholarscommentators and average citizens.

Current international efforts to counter ISIS online have been fairly ineffective. Countering ISIS’ powerful narrative clearly requires addressing realities on the ground.

But perhaps tapping into this extensive global network of anti-ISIS “tweeps” may be of some value. While anti-ISIS content is quite diverse and does not always reflect the counter-narratives that Western policymakers hope will gain traction, observing the structure and content of these organically generated anti-ISIS Twitter networks may offer insights into how to dampen ISIS’ social media successes.

Alexandra Siegel is a graduate student researcher in the New York University Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) lab and a PhD candidate in Wilf Family Department of Politics at NYU.