After the tragic events in Paris, the group Anonymous hacked and shut down 5,000 Twitter accounts held by Islamic State sympathizers, with a great deal of media attention. But Twitter itself and various security agencies (including Europol) had already been using similar strategies to limit the group’s followers’ ability to spread propaganda via social networks.
Clearly their main and common aim was to neutralize the Islamic State’s ability to use Twitter to reach far beyond its own narrow audience, and to reduce the violent radicals’ ability to manipulate public opinion and attract new recruits and sympathizers.
The goal might be a good one. But we need to watch out for the unintended — and potentially serious — consequences of such a strategy.
The risk of losing valuable information
First, suspending Twitter accounts destroys an important source of intelligence. Twitter is an open, public platform. Anyone can access its information. Shutting down Twitter accounts means that sympathizers of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL) and supporters must turn to other forms of communication (digital or otherwise) that could be more difficult to monitor.
We’re not talking here about bots or automatic spammers circulating the group’s propaganda. We are referring only to sympathizers’ own accounts.
The “loneliness effect” and its risks
Second, limiting debate in a digital forum could further radicalize and isolate possible Islamic State sympathizers. The resulting “loneliness effect” can be dangerous, as we explain below.
That’s what we found in the preliminary results of an analysis that we made at VOICES from the Blogs at the University of Milan. We examined nearly 13 million tweets in Arabic from 53 countries published between July 2014 and January 2015. We examined the ratio of positive to negative tweets about the Islamic State, by country.
Here are the details. The “Positive Sentiment toward ISIS” in the figures is the ratio between positive comments over the sum of positive and negative comments, once the neutral ones are removed. When a given country had a higher ratio of positive to negative ISIS-related tweets, fewer of its residents traveled to fight with the Islamic State. The more tweets we found in a country about the group, the stronger that relationship was. The opposite was also true: The more negative a nation’s Twitter discussion was about the Islamic State, the more of that country’s people left to fight with the group.
Why? Our hypothesis is that when Islamic State sympathizers find an online community where they can share their ideas — even extremist ones — fewer of them feel the need to take action by leaving “home” to go fight for the group.
This means that individuals struggling to be “loyal” to a community with non-radical preferences could, if they do not have the option to “voice” (or, more pertinently, tweet) they radical preferences, opt for a far more radical “exit” and actually join the Islamic State.
In other words, to prevent radicalization, it’s not enough for a nation’s policies and counterterrorism efforts to welcome minorities into their nation’s mainstream, preventing them from feeling marginalized. They also need to pay attention to individuals within those minorities who begin to feel marginalized within their own moderate communities.
Driving the believers to become fighters
If our analysis is correct, authorities need to think hard about, on the one hand, preventing the Islamic State from proselytizing — and, on the other, preventing individuals from becoming radicalized because of that sense of isolation or “loneliness effect.”
Our analysis suggests that the loneliness effect could be a bigger concern. We conclude that from the fact that only a minority of positive comments toward the Islamic State – one in four – was explicitly written for proselytizing or propaganda.
Researchers are only beginning the analysis of the consequences of systematic targeting and closing of pro-Islamic State Twitter accounts. As we do so, it’s important to keep in mind the possible trade-off between “tweet” and “exit.”
Andrea Ceron is assistant professor of political science in the department of social and political sciences at University of Milan and co-founder of the spinoff company VOICES from the Blogs of the University of Milan.
Luigi Curini is associate professor of political science in the department of social and political sciences at University of Milan, visiting professor at the school of political science and economics of Waseda University Tokyo), and co-founder of the spinoff company VOICES from the Blogs of the University of Milan.
Stefano M. Iacus is full professor of statistics at the University of Milan in the department of economics, management and quantitative methods, member of the R Foundation for Statistical Computing, and co-founder of the spinoff company VOICES from the Blogs of the University of Milan.
Andrea Ruggeri is associate professor of international relations in the department of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford and a research fellow of the Michael Nicholson Center for Conflict and Cooperation, in the department of government at the University of Essex.