ISIS Twitter Census

Links among the top 500 Twitter accounts as sorted by the in-group metric used to identify ISIS supporters. Red lines indicate reciprocal relationships. (Graphic: Brookings)                          

ISIS Twitter Census

There have been many discussions regarding the Islamic State's (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh)  social media activity—particularly that on Twitter. However, few researchers have provided a deep insight into ISIS’ Twitter presence. In their Brookings report, the ISIS Twitter Census, J.M. Berger and Jonathan Morgan aim to do just that. The findings of the report are based on a study of a sample of 20,000 ISIS-supporting Twitter accounts. The data for the study was collected between October 4, 2014 - November 27, 2014. This Silk is primarily based on these findings and aims to visualize the most important conclusions of the report. 

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Total number of Twitter accounts created. (2008-2014)
Percentage of total number of Twitter accounts, graphed by year.

Overview (2008-2014)

According to the ISIS Twitter Census, between 46,000-90,000 Twitter accounts were used by ISIS supporters between September and December 2014. The authors believe that the minimum estimate, 46,000, more accurately describes the number of ISIS supporter accounts. As the trend of total number of Twitter accounts between 2008-2014 demonstrates, there was a surge in the number of accounts created in 2014 when the Islamic State cut its ties with al-Qaeda, declared its caliphate, and claimed territory in several countries in the Middle East and North Africa––including Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. 

As evidenced by this graph, a large number (22%) of existing ISIS supporter Twitter accounts were created in either 2013, when ISIS claimed territory in the Levant, or in 2014 (59.8%) when ISIS activity increased.

The Year 2014: In Numbers

Top locations claimed by Twitter users on their profile. 

Claimed Location of Tweeters

When it comes to geographical data, 1.5% of the 20,000 users studied enabled location “on at least one tweet of their last 200.” The majority of users that enabled their location on Twitter (28%) were located in Iraq or Syria. Evidently, the majority of ISIS supporters are located within the organization’s claimed territories in both Iraq and Syria, in addition to some contested territories. Further, the second common location for location-enabled users was Saudi Arabia. 

Since many users did not enable location, the authors also analyzed the location of users through the location they claimed in their profile. As this graph demonstrates, the majority of users that claimed a location in their profiles selected Saudi Arabia (866), Syria (507), or Iraq (453).  

However authors also noted that since location selection on Twitter is a “free-form” text-field, many are able to choose a location without verification. As a result, the authors strongly believe that “some ISIS supporters deceptively listed locations in the United States (404) in order to create the appearance of a homeland threat.”

Top time zones selected by Twitter users.

Time Zones Selected by Users

In addition to allowing users to enter a “location” on their profile, Twitter also allows users to select their preferred time zone, which impacts the time that appears on a user’s activity on Twitter. The authors note that approximately 32%, or 6,546, of users selected a specific timezone. The majority of users, 31%, selected Baghdad; followed by Kyiv, 12%; Athens, 10%, and Riyadh, 5%. While Athens and Kyiv may seem as an “odd” time zone for users to choose, it is important to note that both of those cities share a time zone with Baghdad; their time zones can also be used for areas in Turkey and Syria—the latter of which is a stronghold of ISIS. 

An estimated 6.3% of users of Twitter users also selected Arizona or Hawaii as their time zone. 

Number of Twitter accounts created in 2014, by month of creation.

Twitter Account Creation by Months

Data gathered shows that the majority of ISIS-supporting Twitter accounts were created in 2014. A month by month analysis demonstrates that September 2014 witnessed a sharp surge in the number of Twitter accounts created and ISIS-related activity. ISIS increased their activities, including kidnapping people for ransoming, during that time. Their activities were shared all over social media in the form of graphic images and videos; as a result, Twitter started suspending many ISIS-supporting Twitter accounts. The authors believe that “most” of the surge of Twitter accounts in September 2014 is attributed to Twitter’s suspensions: “These accounts were created in response to the suspensions, either to replace accounts that had been taken down, or as backup accounts to hedge against future suspensions and other steps to offsets ISIS’s Twitter influence. 

Average Tweets per Day

Tweets sent per day, on average.

The ISIS Twitter Census report also analyzed the number of tweets sent out by ISIS-supporting accounts daily. The data shows that, on average, 69% of these accounts yielded less than 5 tweets per day; 40% sent less than one tweet per day; and 2.3% tweeted more than 50 times a day. The daily total Tweet “output” of all ISIS-supporting accounts totals 133,422 tweets. Further, the average user within the Demographics Dataset tweeted an average of 15.6 times daily. 

Number of tweets containing a hashtag, graphed by content of hashtag and consolidated from the top-100 hashtags.

Top Hashtags

In order to determine the top hashtags used by ISIS-supporting Twitter accounts, the authors analyzed each user’s 200 most recent tweets. Overall, “a total of 5,384,892 tweets were analyzed, containing 100,767 unique hashtags used a total of 1,465,749 times, which is an average of once every 3.7 tweets."

As this graph shows, 26% of users had a hashtag containing an ISIS-reference—totaling an estimated 232,728 tweets. ISIS references represent 40% of the top-100 hashtags used by ISIS-supporting accounts.

Most common Arabic words used in display names.

Most Common Display Names

Similar to the top hashtags, the majority of the top display names contained an ISIS reference. The authors note that these references included Arabic words such as “state,” “Shami,” a word for "Syrian,  and “baqiyah,” an ISIS slogan. 

Total number of Twitter followers by percentile, ISIS supporters versus typical users.

ISIS Supporters vs. Typical Users

Analysis of the 20,000 ISIS-supporting accounts shows that Twitter followers of ISIS accounts represent a “small number of people” and that the network itself is “internally focused.” In fact, nearly half of all followers were other users in the dataset. The authors also highlighted that ISIS-supporting accounts did not have more than 50,000 followers. Further, although ISIS-supporting accounts have few followers they are still capable of distributing their messages by using several techniques, such as the use of repeated hashtags, tweets, or retweets. 

Performance of suspended ISIS supporters compared to non-suspended supporters.

Suspended and Non-Suspended Users

Overall, an estimated 790 accounts were suspended between September 2014 and early January 2015. 678 of these accounts were within the report’s demographics dataset. The report also revealed that 57% of suspended accounts within the dataset were created between August-October 2014. This indicates that some users were suspended multiple times during that period and created new accounts in the process. 

Change in performance of non-suspended ISIS supporting accounts: Fall 2014 versus January 2015.

In terms of performance within the ISIS-supporting Twitter network, the average ISIS-supporting account user sent less tweets in January 2015 compared to the Fall 2014 period. The authors note that this is despite the “heightened activity around the Hebdo attack during the collection cycle.” However, the average user in January 2015 retweeted more and received a higher number of Twitter replies and retweets

Smartphone usage among ISIS supporters, according to primary app used for tweeting.

Smartphone Usage

As indicated by the graph, the majority of users who used smartphones for their Twitter activity did so through an Android smartphone. A smaller percentage used an Apple iPhone and only very few used a Blackberry phone. Although ISIS announced in mid-December 2014 that members of its organization are no longer allowed to use iPhone products for security reasons, the ISIS Twitter Census found only a 1% decrease in the use of the iPhones in early February 2015.  

Top non-client apps used to send tweets by members of the Demographics Dataset, by number of tweets sent.

Non-Client Twitter Apps Used

The ISIS Twitter Census also found that some ISIS-supporting Twitter accounts used Bots and Apps to facilitate their activity on Twitter. Some users used popular client-apps such as Hootsuite and Tweetbot. However, as this graph demonstrates, some users used non-client apps as well. Some of these apps allowed users to automatically tweet prayers, verses from the Quran, and other related content. The most popular non-client app, Knzmuslim, yielded over a million tweets per day, or 1,000 tweets per minute in January 2015.

Typical Twitter profile pictures used by ISIS supporters. (Graphic: Brookings)   

The authors of the ISIS Twitter Census conclude their report by emphasizing the “belief that while this research significantly advances the state of knowledge about the functioning of extremist social networks, it does not present a complete picture of the effects of suspending social media accounts used by extremists.” Overall, the report’s findings provided an insight, however small, into the ISIS-supporting population on Twitter. 

To read more about the study, its methodology, and challenges, visit the Brookings Institute’s website

Network relationships among “official” ISIS accounts as of January 3, 2014. (Graphic: Brookings)   

Datacards of ISIS-affiliated Twitter accounts created in 2014.

Explore Datacards 

Datacards of users' selected time zones on Twitter accounts.

Datacards of most common Arabic words used in Twitter display names.

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This Silk is primarily based on the ISIS Twitter Census, an analysis paper from The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World.