The Islamic State, an extremist organization expanding through Iraq and Syria, has been known for a while for relying upon a well-built propaganda machine in order to recruit new members and raise its members’ morale. A lot has been written about social media’s crucial part in this operation. On March 2015, the Brookings Institute had published a comprehensive report which reviews ISIS’ Twitter network. The study conducted by the institute estimates that at least 46,000 ISIS-supporting Twitter accounts, though not all were active at once. The authors also found that a minimum of 1,000 ISIS-supporting accounts were suspended during that time frame. One reason for the suspensions is that ISIS’s social media strategy is known for its violent content. The typical ISIS supporters were situated within areas the group either controls or is contesting in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia and other parts of Iraq and Syria were also major hubs. The study found that each account, most of which were created in September 2014, had an average of around 1,000 followers. The authors also discovered that the more active the user, the more likely he or she was to be suspended.
The organization uses every social media platform possible, reaching millions of people across the globe, in order to recruit new members. This sophisticated campaign uses popular methods such as well-directed videos, video-games and songs – all for appealing to the young generation.
On June 12, the New York Times reported that an internal State Department assessment paints a dismal picture of the efforts by the Obama administration and its foreign allies to combat the Islamic State’s message machine. According to the report, titled “ISIS is Winning the War on Social Media,” the Islamic State’s violent narrative — promoted through thousands of messages each day — has effectively “trumped” the efforts of some of the world’s richest and most technologically advanced nations.
For almost a year Twitter has been reported to suspend the profiles of ISIS members, yet, like in a zombie apocalypse, they keep coming back to life, serving the group’s propaganda machine. An S2T Analytics research shows that a the group’s sustainability over the social media site leans on Twitter accounts called “Shoutouts,” which publish the accounts of previously suspended members and encouraging other Twitter users to follow them. This is most likely what enables ISIS members to reopen their account while still maintaining a large number of followers, ranging from hundreds to thousands.
An example for that can be seen in the alarmingly short time that has taken the following accounts to reach hundreds of followers. Muslim al-Britani for instance, received the media’s attention after twitting that ISIS has enough radioactive material for a dirty bomb. The profile has since been suspended, though the Jihadi reopened an account on June 12, and only a few days later already had about 550 followers.
A search for the profile has brought up that it was promoted by a Shoutout account, and then retweeted by other users – who encouraged their followers to follow and support al-Britani.
Another example, can be found in the recently suspended profile of Abu-Samir al-Maghribi, an ISIS member, most likely from Morocco, who already retrieved hundreds of his previous followers:
Shoutout accounts are basically central nodes in the network operated by ISIS on Twitter. They offer a constant follower base for returning twitter users to maintain their operational capabilities. They can be recognized by the portion of their tweets dedicated to promoting new Twitter accounts, and by their higher-than-average activity volume. The accounts are referred to by terrorists as “Baqiya” accounts, which in Arabic means either survival or memory. Previous Baqiya accounts have been shut down by Twitter, but new accounts are being reopened and retweeted repeatedly. It may be that targeting such users would help promote the struggle against the organization on social media. Moreover, these accounts also aid in monitoring and mitigating new Jihadi accounts.