How the Islamic State uses hacked accounts to flood Twitter with propaganda
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Those familiar with Arabic Twitter will know it’s an NSFW (not safe for work) minefield. Trending hashtags are often dominated by propaganda, porn and Viagra ads.
But there are also Islamic State (IS) accounts – lots and lots of them. Click on a trending Arabic hashtag, and chances are you will see a video of an IS attack, a speech by former leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, truck bombs, and executions at pointblank range.
Uniting all of these videos is a common thread: exhortations of the merits of IS, an organisation known for its well-publicised brutality.
This isn’t an anomaly. Over the past few months, trending hashtags in Arabic countries have been spammed rapidly with thousands of videos of IS propaganda, from Saudi Arabia to Algeria.
During the last two weeks of January, I downloaded a non-exhaustive sample of at least 5,800 tweets of IS propaganda. More than 4,100 of these were posted in just a two-day period.
Almost all of these tweets contained embedded videos of IS propaganda. The most grisly showed a row of men being executed systematically by a man with an automatic rifle.
The modus operandi of whoever is operating these accounts is crude. They select trending topics across the Arab world, and spam them with tweets containing multiple hashtags. The idea is that one tweet will then appear on multiple trends across Arabic Twitter. In other words, there’s no escape.
Many accounts appear to be automated, posting tweets in regular succession. For example, @MarroZabala (now suspended) posted two tweets every minute, around 40 seconds apart.