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Comment on network analysis of online ISIS activity

Two different journalists asked me about this paper, “New online ecology of adversarial aggregates: ISIS and beyond,” N. F. Johnson, M. Zheng, Y. Vorobyeva, A. Gabriel, H. Qi, N. Velasquez, P. Manrique, D. Johnson, E. Restrepo, C. Song, S. Wuchty, a paper that begins:

Support for an extremist entity such as Islamic State (ISIS) somehow manages to survive globally online despite considerable external pressure and may ultimately inspire acts by individuals having no history of extremism, membership in a terrorist faction, or direct links to leadership. Examining longitudinal records of online activity, we uncovered an ecology evolving on a daily time scale that drives online support, and we provide a mathematical theory that describes it. The ecology features self-organized aggregates (ad hoc groups formed via linkage to a Facebook page or analog) that proliferate preceding the onset of recent real-world campaigns and adopt novel adaptive mechanisms to enhance their survival. One of the predictions is that development of large, potentially potent pro-ISIS aggregates can be thwarted by targeting smaller ones.

I sent my response to the journalists, but then I thought that some of you might be interested too, so here it is:

The paper seems kinda weird. Figure 1 has 10 groups and but you have to contact the authors to find out the names of the groups? They say, “Because the focus in this paper is on the ecosystem rather than the behavior of any individual aggregate, the names are not being released.” But (a) there’s room on the graph for the names, and (b) it would be easy to post the names online. It creeps me out: maybe the FBI is tracking who emails them for the names? I have no idea but it seems strange to withhold data and make readers ask them for it. If the data were actually secret for national security reasons, that I’d understand. But if you’re going to release the data to anyone who asks, why not just post online?

Anyway, that all put me in a bad mood, also the little image inserted in figure 1 adds zero information except to show that the authors had access to a computer program that makes these umbrella-like plots.

Beyond this, they talk about a model for the shark-fin shape, but this just seems a natural consequence of the networks being shut down as they get larger and more noticeable.

On the plus side, the topic is obviously important, the idea of looking at aggregates seems like a good one, and I’m sure much can be learned from these data. I think it would be more useful for them to have produced a longer, open-ended report full of findings. The problem with the “Science magazine” style of publishing is that it encourages researchers to write these very short papers that are essentially self-advertisements. I guess in that sense this paper might be useful in that it could attract media attention and maybe the authors have a longer report with more data explorations. Or it might be that there’s useful stuff in this Science paper and I’m just missing it because I’m getting lost in their model. My guess is that the most valuable things here are the descriptive statistics. If so, that would be fine. There’s a bit of a conflict here in that for Science magazine you’re supposed to have discoveries but for fighting Isis there’s more of a goal of understanding what is happening out there. In theory there is some benefit from modeling (as the authors note, one can do simulation of various potential anti-ISIS strategies) but I don’t think they’re really there yet.

I’m guessing Cosma Shalizi and Peter Dodds would have something to say here, as they are more expert than I am in this sort of physics-inspired network analysis.

P.S. Here’s one of the news articles. It’s by Catherine Caruso and entitled, “Can a Social-Media Algorithm Predict a Terror Attack?”, which confused me because I didn’t notice anything about prediction in that research article. I mean, sure, they said, “Our theoretical model generates various mathematically rigorous yet operationally relevant predictions.” But I don’t think they were actually predicting terror attacks. But maybe I’m missing something.

P.P.S. The New York Times also ran a story on this one. They didn’t interview me, instead they interviewed a couple of actual experts, both of whom expressed skepticism. Even so, though, the writer of the article, Pam Belluck, managed to spin the research project in a positive way. I think that’s just the way things go with science reporting. If it’s not a scandal of some sort, the press likes the idea as scientist as hero.


  1. D.O. says:

    Re: P.S. This was something similar to what I thought is missing from the paper — the real-life examples in which run up in group size did not lead to anything noticeable off-line.

  2. gdanning says:

    The NY Times headline also talked about prediction, though the body of the article said it “might someday” be used for prediction. The article also seemed to imply that those super smart physicists are coming to the rescue of a all those dumb political scientists, because they are using an “algorithm” and “constructing a mathematical model” to study terrorism. Sheesh.

    • I think typical reporters, even science reporters, hear “constructing a mathematical model” and just have no idea what that means.

      If you told them that every 6th grader solving a “word problem” about trains leaving ohio at 8am was “constructing a mathematical model” you’d probably do a big service to the reporting industry.

      In fact, where’s my 10 minutes of TED talk fame where I explain that concept to a rapt audience of middle-managers?

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