A study released this week by the Brookings Institute attempts to quantify ISIS's social media influence, The New York Times reports. The study, The ISIS Twitter Census, compiled data from September to December last year to determine the number of accounts run by Islamic State supporters. It is the first public attempt to measure the reach of ISIS on social media.
The study's authors, J.M. Berger and Jonathon Morgan, monitored proxies of official ISIS accounts that had been suspended in the summer of 2014 and tracked "friends" of the seed accounts. Because ISIS is an insular community, the authors decided to track only accounts that followed fewer than 500 people. Morgan and Berger argued these accounts were more optimally focused and less likely to follow non-supporters.
The accounts are only a small percentage of Twitter's overall traffic
"Our guiding analytical principle was that an ISIS supporter online could be best defined as someone who was followed by at least one other ISIS supporter, rather than someone who tweeted specific kinds of content within a particular time frame," the study says.
Once their methodology was refined, the authors determined there were between 46,000 and 70,000 ISIS supporters on Twitter, but noted, "We believe the truth is closer to the low end of the range." But quantity doesn't necessarily determine impact. Although many ISIS supporters have at least 1,000 followers — more than the average US user — no single account can match the impact of many US politicians and celebrities. The Times reports that traffic from ISIS supporters is responsible for only "one or two hundredths of a percentage point" of Twitter's total. So, although ISIS may be savvy social media propagandists, their reach is still small, especially when compared to the 61.2 million followers of Justin Bieber.
Because of the nature of Twitter, the authors ran into several challenges while collecting data. Over the course of four months, many ISIS accounts were suspended by Twitter, voluntarily deleted, set to private, or renamed. The study attempted to remove outlier followers (like journalists and academic researchers) from their final count, but did not try to remove multiple Twitter handles run by the same user. The authors said they believed these repeated accounts made up less than 1 percent of the total data.
At the same time, Twitter says it has moved aggressively to suspend accounts that may be run by extremist organizations. While the Brookings study suggested Twitter had suspended at least 1,000 accounts run by Islamic State supporters during the course of the study, executives at the network told the Times that the real number of suspensions is much higher.
Twitter says it is aggressively suspending accounts
Earlier this week, it was reported that ISIS was sending death threats to Twitter staff, but the veracity of those threats have not been confirmed. Morgan and Berger note that their findings are more of a "starting point for future research" than indisputable facts.