The further you are from the violence and mayhem wreaked by the so-called Islamic State (IS) militant group, the more likely you are have a positive view of the group and broadcast it via social media, according to a new study.
IS’s effectiveness in influencing people worries anti-terrorism experts, who fear IS followers might engage in attacks, either in concert with the militant group, or in “lone wolf” acts of terrorism carried out in the group’s name. U.S. law enforcement recently issued an alert warning of potential attacks against U.S. troops on American soil.
University of Milan researchers analyzed over 2 million social media posts from July to October. They found positive sentiment toward IS was stronger in Europe and the United States than in Syria and Iraq among Arabic-language posts to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.
In Syria, the group was depicted in a positive light in only 8 percent of posts. In Iraq it was 19.7 percent, according to the report issued by the startup “Voices of the Blogs,” which is staffed by the Italian researchers.
In contrast, IS support in European countries is much higher, with 31 percent of posts being positive in Belgium, 24 percent in the UK and 20.8 percent in France.
The countries with the highest levels of social media support for IS were Qatar, 47 percent, and Pakistan, 35 percent.
In the U.S. the support for IS among Arabic-language posters to Facebook and Twitter was 21.4 percent, according to the study.
“Those experiencing war, who are threatened and endangered will have a different stance toward a terrorist organization,” said Erin Saltman of the London-based Quilliam Foundation, a counterterrorism think tank. “Whereas the more distance you are from the violence, the more likely you can sympathize with the propaganda and theology, that the ends justify the means.”
The top reasons given for supporting IS include “defending Islam,” 35.7 percent, “proselytism,” 26.2 percent and “state building,” 17.4 percent. That IS was a reaction against the West was cited in only 8.3 percent of the posts.
Those critical of IS cited “using religion for political aims,” 32.8 percent, violence, 28.9 percent and “against freedom (including religious freedom),” 17 percent, as the main reasons.
The research also showed that galvanizing events such as the beheading of American James Foley and the commencement of U.S. bombing intensified either pro- or anti-IS sentiment expressed online.
Three fourths of the posts analyzed were made by men, according to the research.
The team used algorithms to analyze posts with IS-related words like Syria and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to collect the various posts. The vast majority of the posts analyzed, 93 percent, were from Twitter, while the rest were from Facebook, blogs and other social media platforms.
According to the Guardian newspaper the Italian team “say their peer reviewed methods have a 95-98 percent accuracy rate.”
Jytte Klausen, a Brandeis University professor and founder of the Western Jihadism Project, which focuses on jihadi activities in the West, says the study reveals the extent of what she called “substitute jihad.”
“It documents the extent to which jihadists and their supporters have captured Twitter for their purposes,” she said. “There are some hyperactive hubs in countries like Belgium, that spend a lot of time disseminating [extremist] content.”
Klausen thought the percentage of women cited by the study was probably too low.
She also warned that being involved in substitute jihad is a “gateway to the broader jihad movement.”
The Italian study revealed that Belgium had the highest percentage of positive views of IS on social media outside the Muslim world. It also has the highest per capita number of Western fighters in Iraq and Syria, according to the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation.
Still, Guy Van Vlierden, a reporter at Belgium’s Het Laatste Nieuws newspaper and founder of the Emmejihad blog, which documents Belgian jihadists, thinks the data needs to be taken with a grain of salt, saying a handful of diehard IS supporters tweeting multiple times a day could have a very large impact on the study.
He also said that by only looking at Arabic language posts, the study may have excluded IS opponents.
“Lots of IS opponents probably are well-integrated and don't tweet in Arabic, but in one of the official languages here,” he wrote in an email.
“The large amount of support in my country is consistent with the high number of fighters in Syria and Iraq, and it isn't wrong to say that for every Belgian fighter, there are at least ten people at home supporting them,” he wrote. “Tracking their communications on social media makes that completely clear. A sort of snowball effect, you can say.”