The Islamic State, the violent extremist group that espouses a return to a seventh-century caliphate, has been astonishingly successful at spreading its message using 21st-century social media, according to a study released Thursday.
Despite repeated attempts by Twitter to thwart the Islamic State’s threats, propaganda and recruiting by suspending accounts linked to the group, sympathizers have maintained thousands of active accounts on the social network, the study said. The users include a disciplined core group that sends messages frequently and understands how to maximize its impact.
“Jihadists will exploit any kind of technology that will work to their advantage,” said J. M. Berger, an expert on online extremism who was the lead author of the study, which was published by the Brookings Institution and financed by Google Ideas. But the Islamic State, he said, “is much more successful than other groups.”
The release of the study came as Twitter, the San Francisco-based social media giant with more than 288 million active users worldwide, has moved more aggressively to suspend accounts linked to the Islamic State.
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The group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which is ensconced in parts of Syria and Iraq, has used the social network to publicize executions of prisoners, including beheadings and at least one immolation, and to espouse death, violence and hatred for all perceived enemies.
Twitter’s crackdown on the group has led to death threats against the company’s leaders and employees.
Mr. Berger said the threats against Twitter reflected, to some degree, the Islamic State’s increased reliance on open social media forums, a Western invention that seems incongruous with militants’ desire for restoring the caliphates that once ruled vast areas of the Middle East.
The 92-page report found that a minimum of 46,000 Twitter accounts operate on behalf of the Islamic State. The study, titled “The ISIS Twitter Census,” was the first public attempt to measure the influence of Islamic State members or their sympathizers on social media.
“ISIS has been able to exert an outsized impact on how the world perceives it,” the study said.
The report also asserted that at least 1,000 accounts supportive of the Islamic State, and possibly many more, were suspended by Twitter from September to December.
Executives at Twitter, which did not provide assistance for the report, said the study had significantly underestimated the number of suspensions. They declined to comment on the report’s findings, but they did not dispute an ABC News report that they recently shut down 2,000 Islamic State accounts in a single week.
The company said in a statement, “We review all reported content against our rules, which prohibit unlawful use and direct, specific threats of violence against others.”
The group began posting videos of hostage executions and other atrocities last summer, generating a frenzy of media attention and speculation about its online propaganda and support.
The accounts in the study were observed from September through December and were analyzed based on criteria such as the number of messages, number of followers, hashtags and other identifying data, including the timing of messages, the language and, in many cases in which a mobile telephone was used to post a message, the geographic coordinates of the sender.
After refining and filtering for deceptive practices, including the use of bots — computer software that creates fictitious activity on a social media account — the authors came up with 46,000 to 70,000 accounts, but said, “We believe the truth is closer to the low end of the range.”
While these accounts have an average of about 1,000 followers each, considerably higher than an ordinary Twitter user, many followers are also account holders, which creates a kind of echo chamber in the messaging. Mr. Berger said that effect was likely to increase after Twitter suspended so many accounts.
While he and others have criticized Twitter for letting the Islamic State exploit its platform, Mr. Berger said a crackdown was “easier said than done.”
With 288 million accounts, he said, “you don’t have the manpower to go into every one of their accounts and determine their origin.”
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The study said the reach of even the most popular Islamic State account paled in comparison to that of celebrities or Western officials. President Obama, for example, has 56.4 million followers. John Legend, the singer-songwriter, has 6.6 million.
“While highly active and committed, ISIS supporters are an insignificant speck in the overall sea of Twitter’s active monthly user base,” the study said.
Officials at the F.B.I. and the National Counterterrorism Center did not respond to requests for comment about the study.
Mr. Berger said the monthly traffic from Islamic State accounts represented maybe one or two hundredths of a percentage point of the network’s total. “We really give these guys a lot of oxygen for the size of their presence,” he said.
Some of the group’s success on Twitter, the study said, reflected coordinated strategies by users, including the repeated tweeting of the same content by the same user within a short period of time, and the tweeting of the same content by a core group of about 2,000 users.
“To have that many accounts in a very disciplined way out there doing the same thing every day is a pretty powerful tool,” Mr. Berger said. “It doesn’t sound like it’s that much, but it’s very difficult to get that many people who are that committed.”
Like other social media companies, Twitter suspends an account only after other users have reported abuses or threats prohibited by the company’s rules. Twitter says far more complaints are coming in now, prompting reviews of accounts that might previously have avoided scrutiny.
Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at New York University and the founder of a research firm that studies brand influence on social media, said that while he had not assessed the data surrounding Islamic State activity on Twitter, the group’s influence was probably much bigger than the numbers would suggest.
Just as a celebrity’s popular Twitter message is often rebroadcast by other sites and news media, the violent imagery put out by the Islamic State receives wide distribution beyond its initial audience, Mr. Galloway said.
“The thing that is scary about ISIS is that they have clearly taken content production to a level of quality beyond other terrorist groups,” he said. “The videos they have produced are the production quality of MTV.”