ISIS is using new social media sites after Facebook and Twitter crackdown
Lack of reach on alternative platforms means extremists will still try to use mainstream sites, report says
ISIS has increased its use of alternative internet platforms after a purge of the group's sites by mainstream operators, a report revealed.
Since December, ISIS has been turning to the "decentralised web" to find new sites after a crackdown by Facebook, Twitter and Telegram.
It had been dominant on Telegram until the platform deleted thousands of its accounts.
Now, research reveals the group has been turning to platforms like RocketChat and ZeroNet.
"The decentralised web gives users more say about where their data is stored, avoiding reliance on the big internet gatekeepers like Google and Facebook," author Peter King said in the report, titled IS Group’s Experiments with the Decentralised Web.
"It is built on network infrastructure that is more resilient against censorship and surveillance, and poses additional challenges to law-enforcement agencies, restricting their ability to remove content.
"Decentralised platforms like RocketChat and ZeroNet have proved attractive for ISIS media operatives, as the developers of those platforms have no way of acting against content that is stored on user-operated servers or dispersed across the user community.
"This contrasts with social media giants like Facebook and Twitter and messaging apps like Telegram – all with centralised data stores – which actively target content and accounts associated with [extremists]."
The paper was released at the European Counter-Terrorism Centre advisory network, at Europol headquarters in The Hague.
Mr King investigated the exploitation of the internet by extremist groups and their supporters for more than a decade.
In 2004, he pioneered the systematic research and analysis of online extremist media for the British government.
Mr King's research revealed ISIS turned to the alternative platforms in 2014 after a Twitter crackdown, but its initial attempts were thwarted as the accounts were continually closed down.
It created a RocketChat account last December, which now has about 50 channels or “rooms”, and more than 1,400 users.
"While the ISIS media distributors behind the platform are persevering with the experiment, they have become gradually less active in posting the group’s output there," Mr King said.
"This likely reflects an acknowledgement of the platform’s limited reach.
"It also indicates that it is not currently intended to replace Telegram, but rather to serve as a backup distribution channel that could become more active in the future."
He said the extremists were still using the more popular platforms despite efforts to ban them.
"There is little sign that ISIS media operatives are ready to abandon Telegram in favour of more resilient decentralised platforms, which remain less user-friendly and have a far smaller audience reach," Mr King said.
In August, more than eight months after it was launched, the pro-ISIS ZeroNet site is still functioning, although no new propaganda has been posted there since the beginning of March.
"The decision to promote and go live with the RocketChat and ZeroNet experiments in December 2018 appeared to be prompted by a massive cull of groups and channels on Telegram earlier that month, when thousands were taken down in a single day," Mr King said.
"The search for a more resilient platform also motivated ISIS media operatives to investigate decentralised platforms and social networks back in 2014.
"But resilience is only one of a number of factors that are likely to dictate whether ISIS and its supporters eventually decide to move on from Telegram.
"For example, resilience was certainly a factor in the decision to move to Telegram from Twitter in September 2015, but factors like usability, security and potential reach were equally as important to ISIS, with Telegram offering a far better user experience and audience base than any decentralised platform.
"These advantages still appear to outweigh the drawbacks of a more aggressive Telegram clampdown which [extremists] have managed to navigate by experimenting with various mechanisms to exploit loopholes in Telegram’s policies and weaknesses in its engagement with illegal content."
RocketChat offers ISIS a very limited reach, he said, because it is only capable of reaching the 1,000 people who have registered with it.
Mr King predicts that ISIS will continue to search for new platforms.
"While ISIS media operatives have proved the concept that decentralised web platforms can play a role in the distribution of [extremist] content, they are not currently likely to migrate away from Telegram in large numbers," he said.
"Factors that could tip the balance would include Telegram introducing automated processes to remove [such] content in a more systematic fashion or newer platforms addressing usability issues, taking off and gaining reach.
"It is possible that the next platform to be exploited aggressively has not yet emerged. But ISIS media operatives have had decentralised platforms in their sights for quite some time and it seems likely that they will continue horizon-scanning for new platforms and technologies in this field."
In July a study by the Global Research Network on Terrorism and Technology found that removing extremist groups from social media is an effective way of destroying their fan bases.
It found radical groups did not necessarily thrive on alternative platforms when they had been removed from the mainstream.
When Facebook removed far-right group Britain First, it had 1.8 million followers on the site and was the second most-liked Facebook page in the politics and society category in the UK, after the Royal Family.
The group reformed on Gab, which is a popular alternative site for far-right groups, and now only has 11,181 followers.
Updated: September 10, 2019 09:36 AM