Authors: Elizabeth Bodine-Baron, Todd C. Helmus, Madeline Magnuson & Zev Winkelman
Date of Publication: 2016
Publication: RAND Corporation
Purpose of the study
Research questions addressed
How can we differentiate ISIS supporters and opponents on Twitter?
Who are they, and what are they saying?
How are they connected, and who is important?
This study uses a mixed-methods analytic approach to identify and characterize in detail both ISIS support and opposition networks on Twitter. This analytic approach draws on community detection algorithms that help detect interactive communities of Twitter users, lexical analysis that can identify key themes and content for large data sets, and social network analysis.
Number of participants
23 million tweets from 771,321 users
Type of ‘participant’
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has used Twitter and other social media channels to broadcast its message, inspire followers, and recruit new fighters. ISIS opponents have also taken to Twitter to castigate the ISIS message. This report draws on publicly available Twitter data to examine this ongoing debate about ISIS on Arabic Twitter and to better understand the networks of ISIS supporters and opponents on Twitter.
During the Study Period, ISIS Opponents Generally Outnumber Supporters Six to One
- ISIS supporters, however, routinely out tweet opponents, producing 50 percent more tweets per day.
Lexical Analysis Reveals Four Metacommunities in the Twitter ISIS Conversation: Shia, Sunni, Syrian Mujahideen, and ISIS Supporters
- The Shia group condemns ISIS and expresses a positive attitude toward the international coalition and Christians.
- Syrian Mujahideen (anti-Assad movement) supporters have mixed attitudes toward ISIS and generally negative attitudes toward the international coalition.
- ISIS supporters highlight positive themes of religion and belonging; insult Shia, the Syrian regime, and the international community; and pursue sophisticated social media strategies to spread their message.
- The Sunni group is highly fractured along national lines, so different themes resonate differently within this community.
Patterns of Connection Among the Metacommunities Suggest Inroads for Influence
- The core of the Syrian Mujahideen metacommunity serves as an important connection between the Shia metacommunity, some Sunni communities, and the ISIS Supporters metacommunity, who are otherwise disconnected.
- The Egyptian, Saudi Arabian, and Gulf Cooperation Council communities form the core of the Sunni metacommunity, by far more fractured than the Shia, Syrian Mujahideen, and ISIS Supporter metacommunities.
Within the Sunni subcommunities, the Yemeni community has the highest percentage of ISIS supporters and is sharply divided between ISIS supporters and opponents.
Based on these findings, we offer several recommendations for policymakers:
- Research institutions should continue to use the model of Daesh versus Islamic State for ISIS to gauge worldwide activity of ISIS supporters and opponents. The U.S. government may use such models to test the impact of anti-ISIS programs.
- ISIS opponents are plentiful but may require assistance from the U.S. State Department, in the form of social media trainings and other engagements, to enhance the effectiveness and reach of their messaging.1 Of course, with al-Qa’ida and its affiliates counted among the ISIS opponents, care will have to be taken in selecting those suitable to train and empower.
- Twitter should continue its campaign of account suspensions: This campaign likely harasses ISIS Twitter users, forces them to lose valuable time reacquiring followers, and may ultimately push some to use social media channels that are far less public and accessible than Twitter.
- U.S. military Information Support Operations planners, as well as State Department messengers, should continue to highlight ISIS atrocities. The Twitter impact of the burning of the Jordanian pilot as well as previous findings suggesting a relation between ISIS atrocities and ISIS opposition on Twitter indicate that such atrocities may galvanize opponents. Note, however, ISIS clearly uses ultraviolence as a key component of its brand, and a messaging strategy, consequently, highlighting such actions risks playing into its hands (Winter, 2015). A more systematic examination of the causes behind these spikes and troughs, such as ISIS atrocities, would be valuable.
- Nations and organizations (such as U.S. military and State Department messengers) looking to countermessage ISIS on Twitter should tailor messages for and target them to specific communities: The ISIS Twitter universe is highly fragmented and consists of different communities that care about different topics.
- Countermessaging should take this into account with tailored communications to different communities.
Funding for this study was provided, in part, by donors and by the independent research and development provisions of RAND’s contracts for the operation of its U.S. Department of Defense federally funded research and development centers.