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Twitter is taking on ISIS propaganda accounts — and it’s working

Sorry, stock photo ISIS guy, but you're gonna have a tough time tweeting that selfie.
Sorry, stock photo ISIS guy, but you're gonna have a tough time tweeting that selfie.
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

One of ISIS's most important fronts, aside from the physical front lines in Iraq and Syria, is its reach online, through which it solicits recruits and radicalizes potential sympathizers — some of whom may then go on to launch terror attacks.

But there is some good news from the cyberspace front. According to a new report from George Washington University's Program on Extremism, ISIS's reach on Twitter has stopped growing and is being slowly rolled back.

The number of users in the pro-ISIS Twitter network has stagnated, the report found, and individual accounts are sending fewer tweets. Accounts that have been repeatedly suspected for tweeting pro-ISIS material have seen their reach decline as well.

It's not exactly a devastating defeat for ISIS, which maintains a significant online presence. But it's at least a glimmer of hope that efforts to curtail that presence are overcoming ISIS's once-rapid online growth.

The report is based on an investigation by J.M. Berger, a fellow with George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, and Heather Perez, a law enforcement analyst. They tracked a curated list of pro-ISIS twitter accounts between August and October 2015.

They found that the overall size and reach of ISIS Twitter was "stagnant, or in slight decline." The follower count of specific prominent users, in particular, had been "devastated." ISIS Twitter was, as a result, less active; the average number of tweets per day for an average pro-ISIS account consistently declined over the study period:

(JM Berger/Heather Perez)

The authors credit this trend to Twitter for aggressively suspending pro-ISIS accounts.

"While some of this limitation might be due to an overall drop in interest or support for ISIS, we believe it is largely attributable to suspensions," Berger and Perez conclude.

Pro-ISIS users who are suspended from Twitter can always create new accounts — such is the nature of the service — but the report finds that these users struggle to recover their old networks.

"We found suspensions typically had a very significant detrimental effect on these repeat offenders, shrinking both the size of their networks and the pace of their activity," Berger and Perez find. "Returning accounts rarely reached their previous heights, even when the pressure of suspension was removed."

So suspending accounts appears to be at least somewhat effective. Rebuilding followings takes time and effort, the authors note, effectively reducing that account's reach even if he or she registers under a new name — and perhaps discouraging people from sharing ISIS propaganda at all.

Berger and Perez suggest the suspensions could induce "discouragement on the part of returning users or those who follow the repeatedly suspended users." They add, "Declines may also reflect modified behavior by the returnee to avoid suspension, but this is functionally the same result — reduced performance."

ISIS unfortunately still has significant reach online; playing whack-a-mole with pro-ISIS Twitter accounts doesn't solve that problem. But it does appear to have at least moderated their reach a bit.

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