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New online ecology of adversarial aggregates: ISIS and beyond


Authors:  Neil Johnson, et. al.

Date of Publication: 17 June 2016

Journal / Publisher:  Science




Purpose of the study

Key questions 

Those travelling abroad to fight: Yes

Returnees: Yes

Those inspired to attack on home soil: Yes

Facilitators: Yes



Empirical case study with 2 years of pro-ISIS VKontakte data using automated data mining techniques and network analysis with subject matter expert analysis and then development of generative simulation models to match behavior patterns of aggregate coalescence and fragmentation.  Comparison of pro-ISIS patterns with protest behavior (Brazil) patterns.

Number of participants




Type of ‘participant’ 

Islamic terrorism


Characterizing online aggregates (network clusters based on following behaviors) and classifying of separate patterns related to actors whose accounts are suspended (the at risk for mobilisation to violence), those who self-delete accounts and those who disengage from the conversation(s) but don’t delete accounts.     

Key findings 

Examining longitudinal records of online activity, an ecology was uncovered evolving on a daily time scale that drives online support, and a mathematical theory was developed to describe it. The ecology features self-organized aggregates (ad hoc groups formed via linkage to a Facebook page or analog) that proliferate preceding the onset of recent real-world campaigns and adopt novel adaptive mechanisms to enhance their survival.

Key recommendations 

Rather than analyze the online activities of many millions of potential actors, focus on (few hundred or so) aggregates. One of the predictions resulting from this study is that development of large, potentially potent pro-ISIS aggregates can be thwarted by targeting smaller ones.

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