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Study: IS Has More Foes Than Supporters on Twitter

FILE - A 3-D printed logo of Twitter and an Islamic State flag are seen in this picture illustration taken Feb. 18, 2016.
FILE - A 3-D printed logo of Twitter and an Islamic State flag are seen in this picture illustration taken Feb. 18, 2016.

Opponents of the Islamic State group outnumber the extremists' supporters on Twitter, although those who are pro-IS are more active on the social media channel, a Rand Corporation study said.

The nonprofit research organization's study found that IS opponents outnumber supporters 6-to-1 on Twitter, even though the extremist group reputedly has found Twitter to be a highly effective tool for recruiting new members.

The Rand study said ISIS has been more effective than any other terrorist organization, including al-Qaida, at using social media to deliver its message and inspire supporters.

"Al-Qaida was using social media channels just for mass communications purposes," Keneshbek Sainazarov, a director of the global peace-building organization Search for Common Ground, said in an interview with VOA. IS activists use Twitter "for their own benefit," he added, "making a link with potential recruiters, creating a channel for further dialogue and engagement."

Over 10 months, Rand analyzed over 23 million tweets in Arabic and found that IS supporters averaged 50 percent more tweets than opponents on a typical day.

The report found evidence, however, that opponents of IS are becoming more active on Twitter. The researchers recommended that the U.S. bolster efforts to support IS opponents on Twitter by offering more training.

"Organizations such as the U.S. military and the State Department looking to countermessage [Islamic State] on Twitter should tailor messages and target them to specific communities," said Elizabeth Bodine-Baron, lead author of the Rand study. "The ISIS Twitter universe is highly fragmented and consists of several different communities with different concerns, so messages need to be aimed at specific audiences, rather than trying to craft a one-size-fits-all message."

When analyzing tweets sent from July 2014 to April 2015, researchers identified more than 20,000 distinct user communities. Despite the fragmentation, the patterns of connection between communities opposed to IS suggest potential opportunities the government can explore to weaken Islamic extremists' prowess on Twitter.

Near the end of the study's reporting period, researchers said they saw a decline in the number of active IS supporters on Twitter, while the number of opponents increased. The report said these changes coincided with Twitter's suspension of many of the accounts maintained by Islamic State's followers and sympathizers.

"The root causes for radicalization and violent extremism are very, very deep," Sainazarov told VOA. He recommended that countries adopt four different approaches to counter violent extremism: prevention, disengagement, facilitation of effective state responses, and amplification of credible and constructive narratives.