Researchers Study How Terror Messages Spread on Twitter
By Graham Kilmer
Researchers with backgrounds in computer and social sciences at Arizona State University have begun studying how information from terrorist organizations goes viral on social media websites.
Hasan Davulcu, an associate professor of computer science and engineering at ASU and the principal investigator of the research initiative, said the study is centered around understanding what types of information and propaganda from terror organizations go viral on social media, and how that information spreads, as well as the ideological tendencies of groups who participate in the spread of terror social media.
“We need to develop better tools to detect extremist networks promoting violence and block their online content,” Davulcu said.
Terror groups like ISIS target those who feel alienated and marginalized within the society they live in, Davulcu said. They rarely are able to recruit entire groups, especially in Western countries, he added.
Research shows that alienated individuals are more likely to fall prey to images than traditional forms of propaganda, said Davulcu. “They are more likely to grab viewers' attention, are more easily processed, more believable, evoke greater emotion, and remain more salient in viewers' minds,” he said.
The researchers have identified two sets of factors that pull and push individuals into ideological alignment with ISIS, Davulcu said.
ISIS has crafted a narrative in its media that portrays the caliphate as a utopia where Sharia law results in a perfectly fair society, Davulcu said. It espouses the notion that poverty and inequality do not exist under its rule, and creates an allure that pulls recruits to its territories, he said.
It also releases a lot of information over social media with anti-Western sentiment, he added. The call to fight the “oppressor” pushes recruits into the organization, he said. “There’s no silver bullet for countering someone’s message,” said Davulcu.
Responding to and countering ISIS propaganda online will require the dissemination of information showing the inconsistencies in its rhetoric to communities and individuals who may be targeted by ISIS propaganda, he said.
“First we need to understand terrorist recruitment activity online,” Davulcu said.
The study will focus primarily on information cascades,“wherein large numbers of individuals participate to spread information and opinions across the globe, often times producing significant changes in attitudes and behaviors,” Davulcu said. Understanding how these cascades happen is important to understanding the methods used by terror organizations for recruiting individuals through social media, Davulcu said.
Paolo Shakarian, an assistant professor in the school of computing, informatics and decision systems engineering at ASU said, when looking at tweets that reached 50 recipients, less that 2 percent of those tweets end up going on to reach another 500 recipients. The community structure matters in terms of the proliferation of information on social media, he said. If a tweet can reach 50 individuals with diverse backgrounds, then it is more likely to spread.
Messages released on social media require an intermediary, Shakarian said. If users have no form of contact, there will be no information sharing between them, he said. The research is aimed at ultimately understanding who the global message of ISIS resonates with and how, said Davulcu.
“We’re trying to understand the relationship between the online and the offline world,” he said.
The researchers have algorithms to track political online discourse in Malaysia, Indonesia and the United Kingdom, and are working on one for Libya, Davulcu said. Researchers specializing in social sciences identified key ideological variables that will help identify persons susceptible to extremist and violent propaganda, he said.
A characteristic they are paying close attention to is diversity tolerance versus diversity intolerance, said Davulcu. Researchers have discovered that ideologies that are intolerant to diversity are exceptionally prone to violence, said Davulcu.
They are also studying the spectrum of religious beliefs, and the differences between individuals or groups who believe religious texts to be literal truths and those who are more open for debate and interpretation. Individuals who believe in religious text as being literal will never engage in a dialogue about ideas opposed to their beliefs, said Davulcu.
Other important factors for how audiences respond to terror propaganda on social media depends on what the ideological messages they proliferate aim to change, whether it be political, economic, social orreligious constructs, said Davulcu. Also, whether they believe violence is ever an acceptable avenue for change, he added.
The ISIS message enters communities around the world in different ways, Davulcu said. In Indonesia, radical groups have begun to preach and recruit since citizens have gained more political freedoms such as free speech and assembly, he said. After the jailing of Indonesian extremist leader Abu Bakar Bashir, he pledged an oath to ISIS, and hundreds of his followers followed suit, said Davulcu.