On Twitter, the “#” sign refers to a hashtag—a way to group conversations together and make topics of discussion easier to discover and search.  Our blog topic of discussion is #Greenbirds—which involves social media influencers on Twitter supporting the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL).

#Greenbirds: Measuring Importance and Influence in Syrian Foreign Fighter Networks—is a report from London-based researchers at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence who are studying foreign fighter networks.  According to the report, the term came about because foreign fighters eulogize their “fallen comrades as ‘Greenbirds,’ a scriptural reference to the virtues of their perceived martyrdom.”  The hashtag symbol used before the word “Greenbirds” shows that ISIS’ thought leaders have taken to social media platforms like Twitter to disseminate their message.

In using Twitter, Islamic State proponents are seeking to “attract new recruits and inspire lone actor attacks.”  In the last year, researchers believe that ISIS supporters have used more than 46,000 Twitter accounts.  While there is a great deal of controversy in allowing supporters of known terrorists groups to use social media platforms like Twitter for their cause, doing so does have the benefit of making the information posted on Twitter publically available, which, in turn, can be helpful to law enforcement.

The “can” means there are some caveats here.  For example, some tweets have used geolocation information, which highlights where certain events may have taken place or where particular persons of interest may be.  While such information can be real and thus useful for law enforcement, this information can be set falsely and thus be misleading.  If ISIS wanted to instigate a homeland threat, ISIS supporters could set the locations of their tweets to the United States, even if they were not located in the United States.

Also important to law enforcement is the fact that nearly all social media platforms rely on an acceptable use policy to shut down accounts when their terms are violated and that some social media platforms have even started to change their terms of use to specifically counter extremism online.  By one measure, strong attempts to shut down accounts stemming from ISIS supporters seem to have had a dramatic effect.  Researchers from the Brookings Institution have noted that over a five-month period between 2014 and 2015, tweets for ISIS under their main hashtag—which is ISIS in Arabic—dropped from 40,000 to 5,000 per day.

Despite this good news, a key question for law enforcement officials is how many of the more than 46,000 ISIS-supported accounts should be shut down and which ones.  Also confusing is that the same user can manage multiple accounts or can recreate accounts once one account has been shut down.

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