Islamic State’s social media moment has passed

Since Islamic State’s social media heyday in 2014 and 2015, Western governments and social media companies have been successful at making sure these platforms are not “safe spaces” for extremists to meet. Professor Maura Conway explains why, and argues that we must work with burgeoning platforms to prevent a repetition of the past.

Worry about use of the Internet, particularly social media, by so-called ‘Islamic State’ (IS) and its supporters is based on the idea that there is a connection between consumption of and networking around its online content and adoption of their extremist ideology (i.e. so-called ‘online radicalisation’) and potentially, for a small number of individuals, the decision to engage in terrorism.

Concerns have been raised, in particular, regarding easy access to large volumes of violent extremist and terrorist content on prominent and heavily trafficked social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. This is probably or at least partially, what Theresa May was referring to when she described “the big companies that provide Internet-based services” as creating a “safe space”, in her statement immediately after the summer 2017 London attacks.

Whilst relatively few IS terrorists are wholly radicalised online, in our hyper-connected world the Internet is nevertheless implicated in almost all contemporary terrorism as a facilitative tool, which supplies increased opportunities for violent radicalisation and attack planning. IS has capitalised upon and benefited from this. No organisation continues inputting the level of resources – in terms of time, people, and money – that IS has into their online media strategy, without evidence of some kind of return on their investment.

So what’s to be done? In fact, quite a lot has changed since IS’s social media heyday in 2014 and 2015.

Supply-side or ‘field’ factors are impacting on the volume and frequency of IS’s contemporary content production and uploading. These include increased pressure on IS’s territory and manpower and direct targeting by Western forces of IS’ social media ‘experts’ and strategists (e.g. the August 2016 drone killing of IS’s second-in-command, Syrian-born Abu Muhammad al Adnani and, in September, their ‘Minister of Information’ Wa’il al-Fayad) and their cyber apparatus.

IS and its supporters also face increased vigilance on the part of social media and other Internet companies as regards IS’s use of their platforms. It was estimated that there were in the region of 46,000–90,000 pro-IS Twitter accounts active in the period between September to December 2014, but in recently published research, colleagues and I located fewer than a thousand pro-IS Twitter accounts with at least one follower between February and April 2017.

Explicitly pro-IS accounts, such as those using an image of a prominent IS figure (e.g. the so-called ‘caliph,’ al-Baghdadi) for their profile picture or bearing similarities to previously suspended accounts, can today be exceedingly short-lived, we found – often lasting only hours and some just minutes. The upshot of these levels of disruption is that the median number of followers for contemporary Pro-IS accounts is 14 versus 177 in 2014, a decrease of 92 per cent. IS’s previously strong and vibrant Twitter community is therefore now virtually non-existent.

The routing of IS supporters from Twitter does not, of course, equal its disappearance from the Internet. Many former Twitter account holders have relocated to Telegram (established 2013). Whilst originally more akin to WhatsApp, the introduction of its ‘channels’ featured in September 2015, rendered Telegram akin to a more obscure Twitter whilst also enabling users to have one-tone and group conversations that are encrypted end-to-end.

Official IS Telegram channels are subject to some disruption, but generally reappear. There are, however, numerous semi-official and IS fan channels in a range of languages currently active on Telegram. So whilst IS’s reach via Telegram is less than via Twitter, the echo chamber effect may be greater as Telegram channel ‘owners’ have much greater control over who joins their channels than was available on Twitter.

IS content is also available on a range of content upload sites. Particularly resilient, in terms of their continuing publication in the face of significant on-the-ground pressures and wide online availability, and also their coverage in the Western press, are IS’s online magazines. At present, most well-known such publication is the monthly Rumiyah or ‘Rome,’ Issue Seven, of which was simultaneously pushed out over at least 20 social media and content upload sites.

Whilst the significance and ‘real world’ impacts of IS’s online content and activity is a matter of some dispute amongst researchers and others, there does appear to be some correlation between the types of attacks advocated in the pages of various online magazines and their take-up by IS-related attackers. The recent rash of knife and vehicle attacks, which were encouraged and celebrated in various issues of IS magazines, may now simply be copycats of other similar attacks however, which points to the complex interplay of online and ‘real world’ influences.

Some commentators believe that the Internet is going to have an increased role in the immediate future in the face of IS’s loss of ‘real world’ territory and have thus predicted a retreat to online spaces. So what more can be done? Well, “the big companies” can keep doing what they’re doing and some of them can improve on it. In addition, less headline-grabbing than suggesting banning encryption and thus breaking the Internet, but considerably more targeted and practical, are initiatives to reach out to those establishing new platforms and online services likely to be attractive to terrorists and alerting them to this possibility in order to ensure that they don’t become IS’s next online hub.