At least 300 Americans, many of them women, are acting as social media ambassadors for the Islamic State terrorist group, spreading propaganda online and making efforts to radicalize new recruits within the U.S., according to a new report.
Twitter is often the preferred platform for U.S.-based sympathizers, according to the report from the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. Although Twitter often suspends accounts that spread the terror group’s propaganda, new accounts replace the flagged pages within hours.
Researchers identified 300 American Islamic State sympathizers who acted as online “spotters” for the extremist group, monitoring those accounts for six months and watching the radicalization and recruitment process unfold in real time.
“In one case the seemingly naïve individual posted general questions about religion, to which ISIS supporters quickly responded in a calm and authoritative manner,” the authors wrote, referring to the terrorist group by its acronym.
“After a few weeks, the accounts of hardened ISIS supporters slowly introduced increasingly ardent views into the conversation,” the report stated. “The new recruit was then invited to continue the conversion privately, often via Twitter’s Direct Message feature or on other private messaging platforms such as surespot.”
According to the report, some members of this online “echo chamber” could eventually “make the leap from keyboard warriors to actual militancy.”
While most American Islamic State supporters tend to be male, nearly one-third of the accounts researchers examined were purportedly operated by women.
According to the report, a significant number of Islamic State supporters on Twitter use avatars of black flags, lions and green birds but these avatars can be deceiving.
“A particularly clever account uses a picture of the Detroit Lions, combining a distinctly American pride in an NFL team and the popular Islamic symbol of bravery very frequently used by ISIS supporters,” the report said.
Researchers divided the Twitter accounts in to three categories: “nodes,” accounts that generate primary Islamic State-related content; “amplifiers,” those that retweet and favorite tweets to circulate content from popular users; and “shout-outs,” which promote newly created accounts of previously suspended users.
The report also examined how extremists in the U.S. meet and recruit in person and uncovered small groups of Islamic State sympathizers in several cities.
“One of them, located in Texas, revolves around a few charismatic individuals and an Islamic studies group. Another, based in the suburbs of a large Midwestern city, appears to be composed of former high school friends and a handful of their acquaintances,” the report said.
American Islamic State supporters will also exploit hashtags related to current events to rope in more recruits.
“For example, some tried interjecting in the #BlackLivesMatter conversation in an attempt to bolster their support among African American Muslims and spread their propaganda to unsuspecting Americans of al backgrounds,” the report said.