New online ecology of adversarial aggregates: ISIS and beyond

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Science  17 Jun 2016:
Vol. 352, Issue 6292, pp. 1459-1463
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf0675

Tackling the advance of online threats

Online support for adversarial groups such as Islamic State (ISIS) can turn local into global threats and attract new recruits and funding. Johnson et al. analyzed data collected on ISIS-related websites involving 108,086 individual followers between 1 January 1 and 31 August 2015. They developed a statistical model aimed at identifying behavioral patterns among online supporters of ISIS and used this information to predict the onset of major violent events. Sudden escalation in the number of ISIS-supporting ad hoc web groups (“aggregates”) preceded the onset of violence in a way that would not have been detected by looking at social media references to ISIS alone. The model suggests how the development and evolution of such aggregates can be blocked.

Science, this issue p. 1459


Support for an extremist entity such as Islamic State (ISIS) somehow manages to survive globally online despite considerable external pressure and may ultimately inspire acts by individuals having no history of extremism, membership in a terrorist faction, or direct links to leadership. Examining longitudinal records of online activity, we uncovered an ecology evolving on a daily time scale that drives online support, and we provide a mathematical theory that describes it. The ecology features self-organized aggregates (ad hoc groups formed via linkage to a Facebook page or analog) that proliferate preceding the onset of recent real-world campaigns and adopt novel adaptive mechanisms to enhance their survival. One of the predictions is that development of large, potentially potent pro-ISIS aggregates can be thwarted by targeting smaller ones.

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