ISIS and Radical Twitter

Should we be worried about radical Islam's hacking skills?

ISIS and Radical Twitter

It's not as awful as it appears, at least not yet. Although the 24-hour bad news deluge spurting from our myriad screens seems to herald yet more daily Snapchats o' horror emanating from radical jihadis and their disturbingly professional media centers and tech streams, their numbers – most notably on Twitter – remain relatively few.

ISIS or ISIL, AQAP, the Syrian Electronic Army, and freshly minted, apparent lulz-seekers like CyberCaliphate-supporters the Lizard Squad – who in January managed to black-eye both the United States Central Command's Twitter feed and Malaysia Airlines' homepage – are estimated by extremism analyst J.M. Berger to have no more than 45,000 Twitter accounts, of which Twitter has shut down some 18,000 since fall 2014. And then there's Anonymous' Operation Ice ISIS, which last week announced, via Pastebin, that it had targeted some 800 ISIS-related social media accounts. Still, "Whac-a-Mole" comes to mind.

When it comes to parsing ISIS online followers who are actively participating in knives-to-the-throat violence vs. Lizard Squad-types who are racking up page views and freaking out Fox News, futurist, design maven, author, and general "visionary-in-residence" (wherever he may be) Bruce Sterling has this to say:

"The ratio there is about a thousand to one. Lizard Squad is probably fewer than 20 hackers in half a dozen countries, and probably four of them are doing most of the Lizard lulz activities. Lizard Squad are not Arabs, and they're not even pro-ISIS, they just like to freak out the straights with that hot-button.

"There are some pretty good, serious, full-time cyberwar outfits in the Middle East, especially including the Syrian Elec­tron­ic Army, the Iranian Cyber War Head­quarters, and Mossad, but they all hate ISIS. If anybody could take down ISIS by pushing function keys, ISIS would have been toast years ago."

Berger, who recently issued a report to the House Com­mit­tee on Foreign Affairs on "The Evolution of Terrorist Propaganda: The Paris Attack and Social Media" (he also runs, notes that a significant number of so-called ISIS or related Twitter accounts actually "consist of thousands of automated bots that use popular hashtags and celebrities to attract attention." The key word there is "attention." Without the message-amplification power of social media and the Internet, ISIS and their ilk would be limited to more traditional propaganda and recruitment methods, i.e., pamphleteering, graffiti, and geographically limited word-of-mouth. (Which works surprisingly effectively; check out The Battle of Algiers if you haven't already.)

So what to do about radical jihadis' hydra-esque online presence? EFF-Austin president and Polycot Associates CEO (and occasional Austin Chronicle contributor) Jon Lebkowsky says, bottom-line, "It's all part of the 21st century theatre of war – emphasis on theatre, because the war is fought with media as an important weapon. Terror­ism depends on media, and increasingly pervasive (and social) media increases the scope and complexity of terrorist activity.

"We really have to rethink war. It's no longer about nation versus nation. It's entrepreneurial, really. ISIS is like an entrepreneurial upstart trying to disrupt existing nation-states and established power structures."

Religion-branded butchery as the new niche face of Facebook and Twitter? Hardly. Let's just hope these bloody entrepreneurs don't announce an IPO.

ISIS Ain't Got Nothing on Bieber

Account = # of followers

ISIS and Radical Twitter

Justin Bieber (@justinbieber) = 60.7 million

Barack Obama (@BarackObama) = 55.4 million

Dalai Lama (@DalaiLama) = 10.4 million

Russell Brand (@rustyrockets) = 9.2 million

Pope Francis (@Pontifex) = 5.6 million

Anonymous (@YourAnonNews) = 1.5 million

FBI (@FBI) = 1.1 million

U.S. Central Command (@CENTCOM) = 133,000

Lizard Squad (@LIZARDSEC) = 27,700

Syrian Electronic Army (@Official_SEA16) = 22,100

Islamic State Media parody Twitter account (@ISIS_Med) = 11,700

Related Events

The ISIS Twitter Census
Tuesday, March 17, 12:30pm
Austin Convention Center, Ballroom A

21st Century Barricades: Branding the Revolution
Tuesday, March 17, 5pm
Austin Convention Center, Room 6AB

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