A recent analytical study released in March by the Brookings Institute estimated the number of Twitter accounts operated by the terrorist group ISIS to be at least 46,000. The two authors of the study titled The ISIS Twitter Census: Defining and describing the population of ISIS supporters on Twitter carried out a methodological study of the group’s activity on this social media platform from September through December 2014. Authors say that not all of these accounts were active at the same time.
While the study provides, perhaps, a unique and unprecedented resource to examine the use of social media, particularly Twitter, by this terrorist group; it also brings to perspective two major issues which it did not cover- and were clearly not its focus.
At certain scientific analysis stages, it may be difficult to establish a definition of what the term “ISIS Supporter” constitute, and within that quest to create a crystal-clear definition, too many assumptions may lead to the creation of categorization, levels of support and weight of assumed support. Those may extend, for instance, to describing supporters as being members of the group who operate in different locations, and as the study points out, those members (accounts in the context of twitter) actively engage in disseminating “releases, videos and photos from ISIS’s various provinces (See Page 23 on “Official Accounts”). However, membership may not be an inclusive term to illustrate what it means to be an ISIS supporter.
Practically, and whether ISIS relied on 46,000 Twitter accounts to spread its messages of horror and terrorization, or not, it does not at all mean that such a message require dedicated, committed and discipline “members” to spread them on. The terrorist group has thrived over the past two years on an indispensable source of support, which goes beyond recruitment. Its messages found responsive grounds among a large, perhaps much larger than thousands of accounts, constituency of moral support (we can call that indirect, non-materialistic) in Sunni dominated Arab and Muslim countries.
Although the Brookings’ study identified the biggest pocket of “location-enabled” Twitter accounts (28 percent) in Iraq and Syria mostly in areas either controlled or contested by ISIS (See Page 11), it also found that the next most common location was Saudi Arabia, with 27 percent of accounts location. (Page 11). Authors of the study also employed methodological strategies to “Infer location” of these accounts. Again, the top inferred location was Saudi Arabia at 866 accounts (See Figure 2: Page12).
And that brings back the problem of defining who is an ISIS supporter. The constituency in which ISIS borrowed free-of-charge moral support is overwhelmed by Saudi based [users]. Those have probably not appeared as study units in the Brookings’ analysis- they don’t put reference to their support to ISIS in their bios, they don’t identify themselves as close or affiliate of the terrorist group- but they almost share the same messaging content: incitement.
The issue of incitement is the second issue which this valuable study has inspired thinking about. Serious types of incitement have been recorded on an ongoing basis in Saudi- incitement against Shia, against political opponents, against liberals, against human rights advocates, against those who allegedly insult Islam and basically incitement against dissent and difference in opinion. We also need to be clear about the scope of incitement here and that its not about harshly rubbing the shoulders of targeted individuals (or communities) but basically a message which calls to kill, lynch and execute outside boundaries of any civil law or criminal law. Such incitement created the peaks of what has been largely known in the past few years as the wave of sectarian war. It culminated in the second and third year of the Syria uprising by the arrival of radical groups such as the Nusra Front to the field of battling in Syria. Prominent Sunni scholars, largely based in Saudi, used their twitter accounts to weigh support to the fight against Assad regime, but they framed the fighting in a sectarian context. Under such a frame, the target is a “Rafhidhi” or “Khawarij”- two references to Shias. Under this frame, there is no discrimination between fighters and civilians and no matter how Assad regime’s crimes were evident, the incitement to commit responsive crimes, by Nusra and radical groups, and later on ISIS was clearly transmitted.
Incitement is a very serious issue, and more serious when its being committed to call on to kill and take lives of individuals and communities altogether. It is challenging to observe how Saudi regime jails tens of people, rights defenders, dissents and activists for merely expressing their views, while tolerating and actually nurturing an institution of incitement within its system. Establishing the difference between freedom of expression and incitement is very easy, albeit in both cases Saudi lawlessness build up does not help at all.