Occasional Paper – The Islamic State’s Diminishing Returns on Twitter: How suspensions are limiting the social networks of English-speaking ISIS supporters

Since late 2014, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) social networks on Twitter have been
subjected to periodic account suspensions. In a study of metrics for a network of English language
ISIS supporters active from June to October 2015, suspensions held the size and reach
of the overall network flat, while devastating the reach of specific users who have been
repeatedly targeted.
By analyzing a list of English-speaking ISIS adherents, we found:
• The number of readily discoverable English-speaking ISIS supporters on Twitter is
relatively small, usually fewer than 1,000 accounts.
• Extending the discovery process using advanced social network analysis produced a
network of fewer than 3,000 accounts at any given time.
• ISIS English-language social networks are extremely insular, meaning users mostly
follow and interact with each other.
• The number of users in the network who are based in Iraq and Syria appears to have
declined over time, partly because of suspension activity, but also because of operational
security concerns within ISIS and the deaths of some prominent Syria-based network
• The average number of Twitter followers any given ISIS supporter could expect was 300
to 400. Average follower counts were periodically reduced by aggressive waves of
suspensions. However, under typical conditions the average remained flat, as seen over a
30-day period beginning in late August, during which relatively few suspensions took
• Over time, individual users who repeatedly created new accounts after being suspended
suffered devastating reductions in their follower counts.
• Network and individual declines persisted even when suspension pressure eased,
suggesting that suspensions diminish activity in ways that extend beyond the simple
removal of accounts.
• The amount of pro-ISIS content available on Twitter was also limited by suspensions,
since all of a user’s tweets are typically deleted when his or her account is suspended.
• ISIS supporters have deployed several countermeasures in an effort to offset the negative
effects of suspensions.
• Countermeasures include the use of applications and simple hacking techniques to
quickly create new accounts for users who have been suspended, as well as elaborate
tactics to rebuild follower networks. Some of these approaches are sophisticated, but they
have had only limited benefits.
• ISIS supporters have also explored the use of other social media platforms as a
supplement to Twitter, but they feel that a robust presence on Twitter and Facebook is
integral to their recruitment and propaganda efforts, and continue returning to those
platforms despite challenges.
Our analysis was based on a list of accounts maintained and promoted by ISIS supporters on
Twitter. The list was primarily billed as a resource for finding other ISIS supporters, but it
included some non-porter accounts, and the user who maintained the list did not follow all of
the listed accounts.

Tags: CVE, ISIS, Social Media, Twitter, Violent Jihadism