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We Spoke with the Twitter User Who Publicly Released Thousands of Islamic State Accounts

@xrsone, who flagged 9,200 handles belonging to Islamic State supporters and militants, argues that Twitter could implement a better strategy to counter extremist activity online.

by Liz Fields
Mar 16 2015, 5:30pm

Screenshot via Twitter

The Islamic State's global advancement strategy has focused heavily on the use of social media to disseminate propaganda, radicalize individuals, and recruit them as militants. But an anonymous Twitter user with the handle @xrsone is fighting back against the terror group, publicly releasing a list of 9,200 handles belonging to fighters and supporters under the hashtag #opISIS over the weekend.

"It's offensive that they're using American sites and their accounts are run and hosted in American territories and used to recruit Americans," @xrsone, who did not want to be named, told VICE News. "I believe in the freedom and values that social media technology enables, and the more they fight back and try to tear it down and the more they post, the stricter the guidelines become on these sites. And that makes it harder for real information to be shared."

Related: Australian Teenage 'Suicide Bomber' Wrote Blog on His Journey to the Islamic State

@xrsone, who works in tech, noted that he had been incorrectly associated with the hacktivist group Anonymous in a number of stories about his offensive. He acknowledged using data compiled by the highly amorphous digital collective, as well as account information amassed by hacker groups GhostSec and Ctrlsec, to compile his own list, but said that he is not affiliated with them.

"I'm not interested in hacking bankers," he said. "Just getting tired of seeing pictures of blown-up US soldiers on social media."

'They're using our own technology against us.'

When contacted on Monday, Twitter's corporate office did not disclose whether or not it had begun deleting the relevant accounts, or whether it was implementing a more comprehensive strategy to restrict terrorist activities on its site.

"We review all reported content against our rules, which prohibit unlawful use and direct, specific threats of violence against others," the company said in a statement.

The social media giant frequently suspends accounts associated with extremist organizations or individuals who support militant activity, but its whack-a-mole approach to the deletion or suspension of accounts has not stopped people from simply reopening more accounts.

@xrsone noted that this piecemeal and disjointed method of targeting individual accounts spouting extremist ideology has failed to curb the practice of so-called "swarm accounts" — a network of Twitter followers that notify each other when one of their accounts is shut down and mass together to blast out tweets to re-promote the new account.

Related: Islamic State Accepts Boko Haram's Pledge of Allegiance and Claims their Caliphate Has Spread to Africa

Earlier this month, the American think tank the Brookings Institution released an "ISIS Twitter Census" that analyzed a sample of 20,000 Islamic State-associated Twitter accounts by geography, language, tweet frequency, and the number and distribution of their followers.

In a space of three months between September and December 2014, the study's authors estimated that some 46,000 Twitter accounts had been set up by supporters of the terror group. Many of the supporters were located in Iraq and Syria, where the group has declared the establishment of a dubious "caliphate" in territory it has seized, but a fifth of the users listed English as their primary language. Accounts were also opened from the United States, the United Kingdom, and contested regions elsewhere in the Middle East.

The researchers found that Twitter suspended at least 1,000 of these accounts within the same span — mostly those that tweeted often and had large followings.

In February, on the heels of a global cybersecurity summit held in Washington, DC, President Barack Obama signed an executive order facilitating the sharing of classified cyberthreat information with Silicon Valley companies to help them cooperate in countering cyberterrorism.

Other countries, including France, which has the highest number of citizens leaving its country to join Islamic State ranks in the Middle East, has also sought greater cooperation with American social media companies to suppress online recruitment.

Related: French Interior Minister Brings Counterterrorism Agenda to Silicon Valley

But @xrsone said there are simple remedial steps Twitter could immediately take to curb extremist activity online. These include the introduction of a "check box" for users to flag accounts belonging to terrorist supporters when blocking or reporting it, and accepting user generated lists of Islamic State accounts for potential suspension, like the one he posted over the weekend.

The company could also implement a better system of filters to identify swarm accounts.

"Twitter hasn't really changed too much in its policies. It's still hard to report for terrorism," @xrsone said. "They should have a better submission process."

"This affects all of us," he added. "They're using our own technology against us."

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields