Pro-Islamic State Twitter Accounts
Researchers estimate there were 46,000 pro-Islamic State Twitter accounts between September to December 2014, although potentially twice as many accounts existedReuters

A new study has concluded that there were at least 46,000 Twitter accounts backing the Islamic State (Isis) between September to December 2014, but there might have been as many as 90,000 accounts.

According to a report by the Brookings Institutions, The Isis Twitter Census: Defining and describing the population of IS supporters on Twitter, three-quarters of the users behind the accounts tweeted in Arabic.

However, one in five of the users also used English, and on average the Jihadist Twitter accounts had about 1,000 followers each.

IS is the most social media savvy of any extremist group and it uses microblogging service Twitter frequently to spread propaganda about the self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate, as well as sharing videos and images of gruesome hostage executions.

Thousands of foreign fighters have gone to Iraq and Syria to join the fight, enticed by IS propaganda spread on Twitter, and there is also a disturbing trend of women being lured to the Middle East to become Jihadi brides.

This method of spreading propaganda is now considered to be a big enough threat that US Pentagon chief Ashton Carter highlighted the threats of social media in the hands of terrorists to the Senate Armed Services Committee on 4 March in Washington DC.

Twitter's efforts to suspend pro-IS accounts

On 1 March, IS officially declared war against Twitter's employees and the company's co-founder Jack Dorsey, as the terrorists are angry with the social network for suspending IS-backed accounts.

Twitter shut down over 1,000 IS-related accounts towards the end of 2014, and the researchers have concluded that the pace of account creation has lagged behind the pace of suspensions. Authors JM Berger and Jonathon Morgan write in the report.

Islamic State threatens Twitter
Islamic State has posted a threat against Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey and all Twitter employees for closing down Jihadist accountsJust Paste.it

"Based on the discrepancy between the suspension rate and the reports and discussions of suspensions in the content tweeted by supporters, we infer that many suspensions have targeted accounts created by users who were returning after a previous suspension. We also saw some moves to suspend Isis-supporting bots and other accounts involved in manipulative activity."

The researchers believe Twitter's efforts to remove pro-IS accounts have been successful, in part due to the fact that IS hashtags did not go trending across the network. In fact, while the IS hashtag registered in over 40,000 tweets a day in September 2014, by February, the tweets were registering in less than 5,000 tweets a day.

Critics think suspending accounts won't solve the problem

The researchers say some of Twitter's shareholders have objected to the account suspensions as they do not prevent pro-IS users from returning to start new accounts. "The data we collected also suggests that the current rate of suspensions has also limited the Isis network's ability to grow and spread, a consideration almost universally ignored by critics of suspension tactic," the authors argue.

"The consequences of neglecting to weed a garden are obvious, even though weeds will always return. This argument is the equivalent of saying we should not arrest criminals, because crime keeps coming back."

Of course, the researchers believe that it is also important to ensure that while social networks need to deal with extremist and violent content, there cannot be a precedent to limit other organisations just because the network doesn't agree with what they say.

"There are many attendant questions that should be of interest to civil libertarians. These include, for example, whether suspensions disproportionately impact people of certain genders, races, nationalities, sexual orientations, or religions. Twitter in particular discloses literally no information about the accounts it suspends, yet this activity takes place every day."