At least 300 American Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) sympathizers are spreading propaganda for the terrorist group and actively recruiting individuals on Twitter, according to a report from the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.
The report, which drew on extensive interviews, court records and media reports, found that American ISIS supporters "spasmodically create accounts that often get suspended in a never-ending cat-and-mouse game." A new Twitter account or multiple accounts with a variation of the previous username spring up within hours, like the heads of a hydra.
Researchers also discovered that while American ISIS supporters tend to be male, nearly a third of the social media accounts examined appear to be operated by women.
The majority of American ISIS supporters on Twitter use avatars of black flags, lions and green birds, a symbol that celebrates the virtues of martyrdom, the report found. Most of them post in English.
Identifying the accounts was challenging because most were anonymous, the researchers said, so they relied on a number of clues: some users self-identified as American; some were spotted through Twitter's geo-locating tools; and some used the Arabic "al-Amriki," or "the American," in their Twitter handles. The researchers also analyzed their use of language, spelling and cultural references.
Twitter accounts were broken down into three categories of users: nodes, amplifiers, and shout-outs.
The nodes are identified as the top voices in the ISIS Twittersphere and are the ones who primarily create content for the network.
Amplifiers retweet and "favorite" material from popular users. (The report noted that because of the lack of original content from amplifiers, it is unclear whether or not they are real people or Twitter handles programmed to post automatically.)
Shout-outs introduce new accounts to the community and promote the new accounts of previously suspended users.
American supporters also act as "spotters" for future recruits.
The report stated:
In one case the seemingly naïve individual posted general questions about religion, to which ISIS supporters quickly responded in a calm and authoritative manner. After a few weeks, the accounts of hardened ISIS supporters slowly introduced increasingly ardent views into the conversation. The new recruit was then invited to continue the conversion privately, often via Twitter's Direct Message feature or on other private messaging platforms such as surespot.
The researchers also point out that "ISIS-related radicalization is by no means limited to social media." While some supporters express their interest solely online, in a number of cases U.S. extremists "cultivated and later strengthened their interest in ISIS's narrative through face-to-face relationships. In most cases online and offline dynamics complement one another," the authors write.
The report highlights how the Internet has overhauled radicalization and made it more accessible to the masses.
"Some of the most important intelligence is no longer secret," Jane Harman, a former member of Congress and the president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, wrote in the forward to the report. "Some of the best information is open-source, plastered on message boards or a 19-year-old's Twitter feed. Policymakers have been slow to adapt; spies would still rather squint at satellite photos than scrape Facebook feeds."