American actor and musician Jimmy Dean once said, "I can't change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination." To that point, there is no better example of adaptation-for-the-worse than the Islamic State (IS) on Twitter. As waves of social media administrators, hackers, and well-intentioned citizens have continually attempted to push back at IS on social media — via shutting down, hacking, and reporting their accounts — it still thrives on Twitter.
IS fighters and supporters are constantly looking for and, just as importantly, sharing ways to get around security measures on Twitter. Take the pro-Islamic State (IS) account of Asawitiri Media as a prime example.
Anyone who follows my tweets knows the story of this account. In recent months, its authors have even made simultaneous death threats toward Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, and yes, yours truly (following my covering of it). These threats echo widespread jihadist calls for lone wolf attacks around the world and should not be dismissed, but neither should we cower to them. That being said, let's take a close look at how the account operates.
If you follow Asawitiri Media and the many other IS supporters online, you are probably used to seeing that the users have been suspended. However, you may have been surprised lately to see this notice pop up on your screen over and over again:
Without thinking too much, you might assume that the page was suspended and thus can't be found. You'd be wrong, though. The above notice is, in a way, the fresh footprint of an elusive IS fighter or supporter.
Asawitiri Media has been locked in a battle of persistence with Twitter, reappearing after each account shut-down with a mocking tally of Twitter handles (now having launched his 122nd). Each time, the account amazingly regains all of its many thousands of followers within hours —usually close to 10,000 followers within 24 hours.
Aswitiri Media's account, along with many others like it, have been using a series of methods to "escape from suspension" from Twitter. Among the most popular methods in recent months was offered bluntly by Aswitiri Media, wherein he referenced Dorsey:
I give you a way to escape from suspension
Do not tell the malicious Jack ...
Change the User name and the photo ... This how I confused Jack for two days
The account then elaborated:
You can change [your Twitter handle] a thousand time in a day for escaping form suspension
Aswitiri Media demonstrated the method, granting the account different Twitter handles (and thus links) but the same followers and record of tweets, thus explaining the "Sorry, that page doesn't exist" notice.
This also allowed the account to keep the same followers. Every time that the handle name is changed, the account's followers, following, and settings are the same—enough so that followers won't even notice the change.
Indeed, it has made for a strange show. A single series of comments (cropped and condensed below) from a 17 March 2015 tweet from Aswitiri Media shows users addressing the account with different handles:
As seen in the above compilation of screenshots, the user changed his handle five times in less than six hours. In the next few hours, he would continue changing his handles @TMAsawirti, @TurIISMed, @TMISAsa, @117TURM, and others—enough to make a person dizzy.
Indeed, many accounts of IS supporters and media groups have begun using this technique, changing their handles several times a day.
The main reason for adopting this handle-changing technique was to counter the recently-established campaign by Anonymous and other hacking collectives, which aims to attack the accounts of IS fighters and supporters. Within this umbrella of campaigns, users have commonly provided long lists of links to handles of jihadi Twitter users for others to target or report to Twitter, thus making Aswitiri Media's handle-changing method a means of dodging these lists.
About a month ago, Twitter took its own swing at the jihadists with a security feature that would require some temporarily banned users to verify a phone number as well as an email address. Furthermore, those creating new accounts using Tor, a browser which grants web surfers anonymity (mostly), would also have to provide a phone number.
These changes, presumably, were largely focused on jihadi accounts which, naturally, remain dependent on anonymity enabling software. However, shortly after Twitter's new phone requirement was announced, an Arabic-language JustPaste.it document attributed to Twitter user "Abu Arheym al-Libi," was distributed across social media. Along with suggesting the use of Hola, an anonymity-enabling application, and Moakt, a temporary email-creating service, the manual detailed a supposed way to register a Twitter account without a phone number:
Sometimes, it can request a phone number. The solution is to close the page and change the selected country, and try to register once, twice, and the registration will be done without a phone number.
Still, Twitter continues to suspend IS accounts, prompting these users to find ways to make the shut-downs as inconsequential as possible. With that, another manual surfaced recently which provided instructions for how IS supporters on Twitter can "get up and running immediately after suspensions/deletions."
The guide suggested that jihadists exploit two online programs: "Friends2 Timeline," which enables returning users to request "shoutouts" by copying other accounts' following lists to a public Twitter list; and "List Copy," which allows users to export other accounts' follower lists.
The guide mentioned that users, along with designating trustworthy accounts and Twitter lists, should keep a "dummy account" handy, which would serve as an inactive, low-profile library of jihadi accounts on Twitter.
In addition to these many manuals and tutorials, IS's network on Twitter is reinforced by accounts providing regular updates, not only for surviving, but thriving on Twitter. Such accounts include the 'active hashtags' page which announces upcoming IS campaigns, disseminates the latest releases, and lists the new accounts of IS members; and the 'The Ansar Index' account, which provides IS supporters' Twitter pages.
Furthermore, IS-supporting users regularly sit on multiple back-up accounts at a time so that others following those accounts notice no change upon the suspension of the original account. The pro-IS account of 'GREAT IS NATION,' for example, called for followers to 'FOLLOW AND RETWEET' six accounts—three of which leading to relatively inactive variations of the same account—in an April 9 tweet:
One pro-IS user even tweeted a sarcastic message of the back-up account method on April 2:
It might give my readers déjà vu to do so, but I'll say it yet again: Shutting down accounts on Twitter won't be enough to stop IS from thriving on it. And, from the looks of it, neither will basic verification requirements, to which it took IS supporters little to no time to adapt.
The threat of IS on Twitter is real. The platform is the launchpad to the vast majority of IS's recruitment, calls for lone wolf attacks, and other dangerous messages thrown into every corner of the globe. Understanding this fact, it's not unreasonable to expect that Twitter, with a virtually unlimited budget and team of tech-savvy minds, if it really wanted, could develop more sophisticated tools for the job if it really wanted to.
The fact that while I write this article, Aswitiri's 122nd account got suspended and he immediately re-launched his 123rd to obtain 10k+ followers within hours, clearly illustrates that Twitter's anti-IS battle is useless and embarrassing.
It's time to stop shooting in the dark and recognize IS and its followers on Twitter are determined and dangerously adaptive—not because they enjoy tweeting, but because Twitter itself is among the most crucial tools to their growth and existence.
Rita Katz is executive director of the SITE intelligence group (www.siteintelgroup.com). She has been monitoring terrorist activity and Jihad for more than a decade.
You can find her on Twitter @rita_katz.