Tweeting Against Terror: Can U.S. Social Media Strategy Weaken ISIS Influence on Twitter? | Web version

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August 29, 2016


Tweeting Against Terror: Can U.S. Social Media Strategy Weaken ISIS Influence on Twitter?

The ISIS hashtag is seen typed into a Twitter smartphone app, February 6, 2016

Photo by Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Like no terrorist organization before, ISIS has used Twitter and other social media channels to broadcast its message, inspire followers, and recruit new fighters. Although much attention has been given to ISIS's effective use of Twitter, recent RAND analysis found that ISIS opponents on the social media platform outnumber supporters by a six-to-one margin. Even so, supporters are more prolific, each producing 50 percent more tweets per day.

The RAND study analyzed more than 23 million tweets posted in Arabic over a 10-month period. Researchers identified more than 20,000 distinct user communities and grouped them into four major meta-communities that represent different perspectives on ISIS:

  • The Shia community generally supports the anti-ISIS coalition.
  • The Syrian mujahedeen group is opposed to the Assad regime and has mixed views of ISIS.
  • The Sunni camp is the most fractured group, with several sub-communities focused on country-specific issues.
  • The community of ISIS supporters decries threats against Islam and actively encourages sympathizers to spread its message.

“ISIS opponents on Twitter are divided into numerous groups,” said Elizabeth Bodine-Baron, the report's lead author. “If an anti-ISIS Twitter campaign is to be relevant, the U.S. government must tailor messages for the various group divisions. A one-size-fits-all message will fall flat with many of these audiences.”

As Congress and U.S. policymakers continue to examine ISIS's use of social media and seek ways to defeat the message of the terrorists, this research suggests some options that may be effective:

  • Policymakers could encourage Twitter to continue its campaign of account suspensions that harasses ISIS Twitter users, forcing them to lose valuable time reacquiring followers, and ultimately push some to use channels that are far less public than Twitter.
  • The State Department could broaden its social media training and other engagements, which currently focus on select civil society members, to include ISIS opponents in order to enhance the effectiveness and reach of their messaging.
  • The U.S. military, State Department, and other nations and organizations could tailor and target messages to the specific communities and sub-communities that make up the highly fragmented ISIS Twitter universe.

Read the report »

For questions or to discuss this report, please contact Kurt Card or Laura Patton.

RAND Congressional Resources Staff

Jayme Fuglesten
Director, Office of Congressional Relations

Kurt Card
Legislative Analyst

Laura Patton
Legislative Analyst

RAND Office of Congressional Relations
(703) 413-1100, ext. 5395


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