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The Islamic State group, or ISIS, has fused two things that until now were separated by centuries -- medieval brutality and the hyperactive use of social media. And while tweeted images of beheadings and immolations draw the biggest headlines, the pro-ISIS propaganda stream is much broader, full of visions of a resurgent Islam seeking soldiers in its cause.
Former National Security Council staffer Hillary Mann Leverett focused on this part of the ISIS recruiting machine during a Feb. 17, 2015, interview on CNN’s New Day. Leverett said American military operations since the Iraq War have given ISIS plenty of material to exploit.
"This is what the Islamic State, and al-Qaida before it, has been able to use in their rhetoric," Leverett said. "There are 90,000 social messages a day. All they have to do is put real footage of what the United States has done in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya."
The huge use of social media by ISIS is not in question. We were curious though about the source of the 90,000 figure. That seems like a lot of tweets and Facebook posts for a single organization to crank out.
Leverett pointed to us a New York Times article about the expansion of the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications to thwart the Islamic State message machine.
"With the Islamic State and its supporters producing as many as 90,000 tweets and other social media responses every day, American officials acknowledge they have a tough job ahead to blunt the group’s digital momentum," the reporters wrote.
That doesn’t exactly say where the number originated, but other news organizations certainly have repeated the stat in the past few days. The earliest use we could find was in a report from the British House of Commons Defence Committee on Feb. 5, 2015. In a section focused on the threat of ISIS in Iraq, the report said, "They have proved themselves adept in the use of social media, sending 90,000 messages a day."
(We asked the Defence Committee where it got that number, but Parliament is in recess and key staff are on vacation. We will update this item if we hear from them.)
Independently, we discovered two separate research groups that track the social media activity of the Islamic State.
J.M. Berger is a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution who recently testified before the Foreign Affairs Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives about terrorists’ use of social media. With funding from Google, Berger and his technologist colleague Jonathon Morgan set up a system to capture the scope of pro-ISIS messaging.
They found that in the fall of 2014, there were at least 45,000 Twitter accounts used by ISIS supporters. With that as a starting point, Berger told PunditFact that 90,000 messages a day is likely a conservative number.
"My best estimate is something over 200,000 a day, including retweets, but that comes with a lot of caveats," Berger said.
Berger said the figure includes supporters as well as actual members of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
"It is not entirely possible to break down members vs. fanboys and the bulk of accounts don't visibly differentiate," Berger said. "But a plurality of the accounts we examined for the study appeared to be based in Iraq and Syria."
Berger offered two other cautionary notes:
• The numbers are driven by a small number of high over-performers, probably fewer than 2,000 accounts that often tweet in bursts of 50 or more tweets per day as part of a deliberate strategy.
• There are also deceptive techniques such as the use of bots and purchased retweets to inflate these numbers. Berger said his analysis took steps to eliminate as much of this noise as possible but very probably didn't get it all.
Voices from the Blogs, a research service based in Milan, Italy, tracks tweets written in Arabic. This is a subset of the total number of tweets related to the Islamic State, since tweets are sent in many different languages. One of the lead researchers is Luigi Curini, an associate professor of political science at the University of Milan.
Curini told PunditFact that while he and his colleagues Stefano Iacus and Andrea Ceron saw between 100,000 and 150,000 Arabic language tweets each day from October to January, many were judged to take no clear stance on ISIS and of the remainder, only about 20 to 25 percent favored the extremist group. After taking those factors into account, the high-end estimate of pro-ISIS Arabic language tweets averaged about 38,000 per day.
Daily events will shape the Twitter traffic. Curini was struck by the impact of the murders of the Charlie Hebdo journalists.
"The sentiment pro-ISIS actually decreased soon after the Paris attack, especially in the European community writing in Arabic language," Curini said. "But this drop lasted just a few days."
Still, right after the violence in Paris, two media groups with ties to ISIS, Al-Battar and Al-Ghuraba, launched a campaign to inspire copycat killings. According to the Middle East Media Research Institute, a private media surveillance firm, they fired off tweets and circulated images like these for others to share.
Berger’s analysis included all languages and, like Curini’s work, tallied only the pro-ISIS messages. The efforts of both groups show a high volume of tweeting, although some significant fraction of that comes from fans of ISIS, rather than the group itself.
Nevertheless, regardless of the source, whether insider, fan, or computer-generated, Berger said these messages reach a shared audience for whom the source might be irrelevant. This makes targeting a counter message very difficult.
Leverett said the Islamic State group sends out 90,000 social media messages each day. While the exact source of that figure is a bit unclear, one independent researcher has data that point to much a higher number. There could be as many as 200,000 pro-ISIS tweets a day. That includes re-tweets and some generated by computer programs. A lower figure from an Italian-based group looked only at Arabic language tweets.
However, while it is difficult to know for sure, a large share of these messages come from outside the ISIS organization itself.
To that extent, the data undercut the idea that the Islamic State group dictates the precise propaganda message in all of the social media posts.
With that caveat in mind, we rate the claim Mostly True.
CNN, New Day, Feb. 17, 2015
British House of Commons Select Committee on Defence, The situation in Iraq and Syria and the response to al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq al-Sham (DAESH), Feb. 5, 2015
Huffington Post UK, Blunt Parliamentary Report Sharpens Debate on Defeating Daish, Feb. 5, 2015
Brookings Institution, The Evolution of Terrorist Propaganda: The Paris Attack and Social Media, Jan. 27, 2015
CNN, Official: ISIS pumps out 90,000 messages a day, Feb. 17, 2015
New York Times, U.S. Intensifies Effort to Blunt ISIS’ Message, Feb. 16, 2015
The Guardian, Support for Isis stronger in Arabic social media in Europe than in Syria, Nov. 28, 2014
Middle East Media Research Institute, #FightForHim: Campaign By Media Groups Affiliated With Islamic State (ISIS) In Support Of Paris Shootings And Calling For More Attacks, Jan. 13, 2015
New York Times, ISIS Displaying a Deft Command of Varied Media, Aug. 30, 2014
SITE Intelligence Group, Follow ISIS on Twitter: A Special Report on the Use of Social Media by Jihadists, June 26, 2014
Sydney Morning Herald, ISIS: By our clicks we give oxygen to terrorists, Feb. 17, 2015
Email interview, Hillary Mann Leverett, visiting scholar, Georgetown University, Feb. 18, 2015
Email interview, J.M. Berger, non-resident fellow, Brookings Institution, Feb. 18, 2015
Email interview, Luigi Curini, professor of political science, Department of Social and Political Sciences, Università degli Studi di Milano, Feb. 18, 2015
Email interview, Thomas Hegghammer, Research Fellow, Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, Feb. 18, 2015
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