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How Media Analysis Is Helping Win the War On Terrorism


The media has recently been filled with the perplexing problems of fake news. So it is encouraging to learn that there is some rather good news on the evils-of-social-media front. Media analysis can take some credit for winning the war on terrorism—or at least for better understanding how the war is being won.

A study by researchers at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) has analyzed more than 9,000 social media propaganda releases of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISL. It reports a dramatic drop in output and change in content over the past couple of years.

In the summer of 2015, at the peak of the Islamic State’s media output, more than 700 items a month were released, mostly emphasizing the potential peace and prosperity of a Muslim state. But as of last summer, after more than a year of military efforts against the group, not only had the overall output been drastically reduced, but its emphasis had changed from civilian life to military themes. See the chart above, taken from the CTC report.

The CTC tracked two years of media output, analyzing visual products from official sources of the Islamic State. These included videos, Twitter and elsewhere that include images, and collections of photos and captions. Skipping text-only messages made the volume more manageable and put the focus on items with greater potential influence.

To download the entire report, see this page at the CTC website, or read a summary by Scott Shane at The New York Times.

The CTC report, according to its introduction:

…begins with an analysis of a small number of documents that were captured by U.S. government forces in Iraq from 2006-2008 to demonstrate how AQI and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) saw the media and attempted to organize itself to fully exploit its far-reaching potential…

The report then turns to an examination of over 8,000 pieces of visual propaganda products created by official branches of the Islamic State’s media organization. In an effort to understand the group’s overall media products from a holistic perspective, we examine a number of different facets of the data, including themes, timing, and geo-attributes.

Says The New York Times:

“It’s not just the numeric decline,” said Daniel Milton, director of research at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point and the author of the new report. “The caliphate was their big selling point. Now there’s an inability to say we’re doing the things that make us a state. And that was behind their broad appeal.”

…The [report’s] findings reflect a cascade of failures for the Islamic State, reversing its sudden rise both in territory seized and propaganda reach in 2014.

As we struggle to understand how to deal with the recent deluge of fake news (see our report here, and coverage in our sister publication Media Bullseye here and here), it is heartening to note the CTC report’s last section. This details efforts to identify, limit, and remove Islamic State social media documents from social media. These include removing entire hosting services from the internet, as well as removing individual posts.

The conclusion of the report includes another tantalizing hint of a possible key to investigating the problems of both propaganda and fake news—examine the audience:

This paper has not given insight into a critical component… the audience of Islamic State media products. Although practitioners and policymakers broadly assume to know which products are attractive to potential sympathizers, to the author’s knowledge no rigorous work has shown that individuals focus on certain types of products as opposed to others.


Bill Paarlberg
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Bill Paarlberg

Bill Paarlberg co-founded The Measurement Standard in 2002 and was its editor until July 2017. He also edits The Measurement Advisor newsletter. He is editor of the award-winning "Measuring the Networked Nonprofit" by Beth Kanter and Katie Paine, and editor of two other books on measurement by Katie Paine, "Measure What Matters" and "Measuring Public Relationships." Visit Bill Paarlberg's page on LinkedIn.
Bill Paarlberg
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