Extremism.com: ‘Followers’ take on literal meaning in cyber terror echo chambers

Mehdi Masroor Biswas, a Bangalore-based engineer, was arrested last year for operating the most influential pro-Islamic State Twitter account, @ShamiWitness, with over 17,700 followers (Sabin 2014). Tweets from the account contained extremist propaganda, including footage of executions, information for would-be recruits and messages praising fighters who have been killed as martyrs (Burke 2014).


The power of social media has been harnessed by extremist and terrorist groups to spread poisonous propaganda and influence mass cyber-terror-lthinking (‘Study demonstrates’ 2014). According to counter-terrorist expert Richard Barret (cited in Ashford 2015), social media is the most powerful cyber tool used by terror groups, posing significant national security and public safety risks.

With ISIS controlling as many as 90,000 Twitter accounts worldwide, the global, distributed network ecology of the Internet has become dangerous. This is evident in Mehdi’s social media propaganda which attracted troubled souls around the world to the terrorist cause and abetted ISIL in its agenda to wage war against Asiatic powers (Sabin 2014).

At the same time, the walled gardens of social media are also creating echo chambers of facebook-echo-chamberdangerous insularity. The social network of ISIS supporters on Twitter is becoming more insular, with like-minded users following each other and becoming less exposed to outside, potentially deradicalising, influences (Berger 2015).

In this way, just as the online distribution networks of extremist groups pose significant dangers due to their outreach capabilities, social media platforms are also enabling people to fragment themselves in self-selecting groups of the politically-liked minded. Such polarisation and extremism facilitated by the narrowcasting feature of the Internet forces us to reconsider the revolutionary role of social media.

Perhaps governments should focus on creating a counter-narrative to offset ISIS propaganda via social media, promoting liberty and human dignity as an alternative to oppression, fear and terror.


Reference List:

Ashford, W 2015, ‘Social media the main cyber terror threat facing the UK, says former MI6 officer’, Computer Weekly, 16 October, accessed 18 October 2015, <http://www.computerweekly.com/news/4500255638/Social-media-the-main-cyber-terror-threat-facing-the-UK-says-former-MI6-officer>.

Berger, JM 2015, ‘Taming ISIS on Twitter: More than a game of whack-a-mole’, CNN, 2 April, accessed 18 October 2015, <http://edition.cnn.com/2015/03/13/opinions/isis-twitter-crackdown/>.

Burke, J 2014, ‘Indian police arrest owner of pro-Islamic State Twitter account’, Guardian, 13 December, accessed 18 October 2015, <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/13/india-isis-twitter-mehdi-masroor-biswas-shamiwitness>.

Sabin, L 2014, ‘Indian police arrest man allegedly behind pro-Isis Twitter account’, Independent, 13 December, accessed 18 October 2015, <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/indian-police-arrest-man-allegedly-behind-pro-isis-twitter-account-9922638.html>.

‘Study demonstrates the power of social  media for terror propaganda’ 2014, Phys.org, 2 October, accessed 18 October 2015, <http://phys.org/news/2014-10-power-social-media-terror-propaganda.html>.




8 thoughts on “Extremism.com: ‘Followers’ take on literal meaning in cyber terror echo chambers

  1. Hi Giverny,
    Your post was really interesting to read! This was a great example to truly demonstrate the power of social media and also the vast reach that terror-related accounts now have. Being a new Twitter user, I did not know that ISIS was so vocal on the platform, nor did I realise that the group occupied and controlled over 90 000 accounts. The anonymous nature of the cyberspace evidently makes it very difficult to track and control the pro-Islamic State accounts through social media. It is interesting to hear you mention Government controlled accounts in a positive context, as most of the other blogs I have read conversely portray this in a very negative and invasive light. I agree with you in this case as Government controlled accounts could possess the power to offset ISIS propaganda that is expressed online.
    Thank you for a great read!

    • Hi Lara! Indeed, it is quite startling that ISIS has up to 90,000 Twitter accounts. It has even been referred to as the ‘social media war machine’. I definitely think that social media companies and the government need to work together to devise appropriate responses to extremism on social media. Thank you for your comment!

  2. Hi,
    This was a great post to read as I was honestly unaware of the extent of ISIS on Twitter. Your post really reiterates the need for a governmentary body to regulate such activity online. I have been of firm belief for a long time now that there needs to be more extensive regulation online, whether this means the Government impose stricter laws, or there is a body or organisation which is contactable by citizens to report illegal activities. There may be hotlines and so on, but consider identity theft online. Imagine if someone made a false account and perhaps started commenting on one of these ISIS accounts in your name? Where would you contact? This can be detrimental to your work, social, legal, all aspects of life!
    It’s clear that the law has not been able to keep up with the evolving world wide web.

    • Hi Amy. Thank you for your comment. I agree that the government’s response is limited. I think there needs to be better ways of identifying the people most at risk of being persuaded by extremist messages, and establishing one-on-one contact online with them. Perhaps sock puppets can be used to steer conversations and people at risk of radicalisation away from extremism.

  3. Your point that ‘Perhaps governments should focus on creating a counter-narrative to offset ISIS propaganda via social media’ is an interesting one. I don’t know that is is necessary for governments to have to create such accounts as users will do this for them. Clearly the British government agrees with you however, because in august they launched and anti- Isis twitter account.

    • Hi Jacqueline. The link you provided is really interesting. I think the strategy adopted by the British government to tweet out countermessages is promising. I do wonder, however, whether these countervailing viewpoints are strong enough to oppose ISIS given it has such a powerful presence on social media.

  4. Great blog! I really liked the examples you used and how you talked about how governments should be promoting liberty as a counter to ISIS’s propaganda. I also had no idea that ISIS’s presence on social media was that significant! I thought it was really interesting how you introduced the concept of echo chambers into this blog as it is a concept I haven’t thought about for a while and it pairs really well with what you have talked about here. Well done on a strong blog post!

    • Hi Jacob! Thank you for your comment. It is indeed quite scary to consider how extremist groups are turning social networks that we use to communicate with our friends and family into ideological echo chambers. It appears ISIS is really exploiting the power of today’s social web to shape people’s worldviews and, in doing so, radicalise and empower armies of new recruits.

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