Hashtags, algorithms, chatter: Novel model to track ISIS activities online

  • PTI, Washington
  • Updated: Jun 17, 2016 15:13 IST
This undated image released by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows members of the Islamic State group as they prepare to kill men who were allegedly spying for the US-led coalition in the province of Salah al-Din, Iraq. (AP)

Researchers have developed a model to identify behavioural patterns among online groups of ISIS supporters that could provide cyber police and anti-terror watchdogs a roadmap to their activities and help predict terror attacks.

Researchers from University of Miami in the US identified and analysed second-by-second online records of 196 pro-ISIS groups operating during the first eight months of 2015.

They found that even though most of the 108,000-plus individual members of these self-organised groups probably never met, they had a striking ability to adapt and extend their online longevity, increase their size and number, reincarnate when shut down - and inspire “lone wolves” with no history of extremism to carry out horrific attacks.

“It was like watching crystals forming. We were able to see how people were materialising around certain social groups; they were discussing and sharing information - all in real-time,” said Neil Johnson from University of Miami.

Generalising a mathematical equation commonly used in physics and chemistry to the development and growth of ad hoc pro-ISIS groups, researchers witnessed the daily interactions that drove online support for these groups, or “aggregates,” and how they came together and multiplied prior to the onset of real-world campaigns.

Researchers suggest that by concentrating just on these relatively few groups of serious followers - those that discuss operational details like routes for financing and avoiding drone strikes - cyber police and other anti-terrorist watchdogs could monitor their buildup and transitions and thwart the potential onset of a burst of violence.

“This removes the guess work. With that roadmap, law enforcement can better navigate what is going on, who is doing what, while state security agencies can better monitor what might be developing,” said Johnson.

“So the message is find the aggregates - or at least a representative portion of them - and you have your hand on the pulse of the entire organisation, in a way that you never could if you were to sift through the millions of internet users and track specific individuals, or specific hashtags, Johson said.

The research suggests that any online ‘lone wolf’ actor will only truly be alone for short periods of time, he added.For the study, researchers monitored pro-ISIS groups on VKontakte, the largest online social networking service in Europe.

They began their online search of pro-ISIS chatter manually, identifying specific social media hashtags, in multiple languages, which they used as “signals” to trace the more serious groups.

The hashtags were tracked to the online groups, and the data was fed into a software system that mounted the search. The results were repeated until the chase led back to groups previously traced in the system, researchers said. The findings were published in the journal Science.

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