ISIS is losing its best recruiting tool

How Does ISIS Recruit Child Soldiers?

Twitter has been crucial to the terrorist group ISIS convincing Westerners to join its "caliphate" in the Middle East and mount attacks at home.

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But it looks like ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh) is now losing steam on the social media platform.

A new report from the George Washington University Program on Extremism shows that efforts to suspend terrorist-affiliated Twitter accounts have been successful in slowing the group's reach on the platform.

"Diminishing returns is the way to think about it," J.M. Berger, a co-author of the report, told Business Insider.

"They're still there ... but a lot of their key functions have been severely limited. And they're spending a lot more time just trying to stay online rather than do the work."

See photos of past ISIS recruits:

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People accused of trying to join ISIS/recruited by ISIS
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ISIS is losing its best recruiting tool
ANKARA, TURKEY - MARCH 17: A passport photo alleged to belong to 22-years-old British woman Jalila Henry and to have been used by her twin sister Jamila Henry (known and named by Turkish officials as Jaila Nadra H) as she tried to travel through Turkey to Syria to join Daesh (Islamic State of Iraq and Levant) terrorists. Jaila Nadra H was detained after an operation staged by the Turkey's Ankara Province Police Anti-terrorism department in the city's bus terminal in Ankara, Turkey on March 17, 2015. (Photo by Turkish National Police/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Renu Begum, eldest sister of Shamima Begum, 15, holds her sister's photo as she is interviewed by the media at New Scotland Yard, as the relatives of three missing schoolgirls believed to have fled to Syria to join Islamic State have pleaded for them to return home, on February 22, 2015 in London, England. Police are urgently trying to trace Shamima Begum, 15, Kadiza Sultana, 16, and 15-year-old Amira Abase after they flew to Istanbul in Turkey from Gatwick Airport on Tuesday. (Photo by Laura Lean - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
ANKARA, TURKEY - MARCH 17: A 22-years-old British woman, Jamila Henry (known and named by Turkish officials as Jaila Nadra H) who is alleged to have tried to travel through Turkey to Syria to join Daesh (Islamic State of Iraq and Levant) terrorists, who has been detained after an operation staged by the Turkey's Ankara Province Police Anti-terrorism department in the city's bus terminal in Ankara, Turkey on March 17, 2015. (Photo by Turkish National Police/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Handout still taken from CCTV issued by the Metropolitan Police of (left to right) 15-year-old Amira Abase, Kadiza Sultana,16 and Shamima Begum,15 at Gatwick airport, before they caught their flight to Turkey. Metropolitan Police officers are in Turkey as the search continues for three missing schoolgirls believed to have fled to Syria to join Islamic State.
Fighters from the Iraqi Imam Ali Brigade, take part in a training exercise in Iraq's central city of Najaf on March 7, 2015, ahead of joining the military operation in the city of Tikrit. Some 30,000 Iraqi security forces members and allied fighters launched an operation to retake Tikrit at the beginning of March, the largest of its kind since Islamic State (IS) group forces overran swathes of territory last June. AFP PHOTO / HAIDAR HAMDANI (Photo credit should read HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP/Getty Images)
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Over the past few years, ISIS has mastered the use of social media as a means to recruit. In his book, "ISIS: The State of Terror," Berger chronicled the crisis of Westerners getting sucked into ISIS' online propaganda machine. And The New York Times reported last year that at the time, foreigners made up half of ISIS' fighting force, and an estimated 4,000 of them come from Western countries.

However, the tide may be turning.

Average tweets per day from pro-ISIS accounts declined during the time the report's authors were monitoring tweets, as did the average number of accounts and followers.

This makes it harder for people to stumble upon ISIS content on Twitter if they aren't actively looking for it.

"It's still an effective recruiting platform, but the burden of making first contact is increasingly shifting to the recruit instead of the recruiter," Berger said. "... These changes I think have severely limited their ability to broadcast."

ISIS Twitter chartREUTERS/Dado Ruvic

The authors of the report collected data from a list of about 1,000 accounts maintained by the user "Baqiya Shoutout," a prominent account that promoted pro-ISIS users.

The "shoutout" method has been crucial for ISIS maintaining its reach on Twitter — pro-ISIS accounts are often suspended, so once ISIS supporters pop back up on the platform with a new username, they need "shoutout" accounts to mention them so that they can regain their following.

They also looked at other accounts, finding about 2,500 English-language, pro-ISIS users.

ISIS Twitter Abu Asma al-AmrikiREUTERS/Dado RuvicThe report contradicts the "whack-a-mole" theory of terrorist Twitter accounts.

Meaning, even if social media companies shut down the accounts of terrorist sympathizers, new ones will quickly pop up in their place.

"This [report] is fundamentally aimed at the idea that it's pointless to ... try and suppress these guys on social media because they'll just come back at the same level that they did," Berger said.

"People have been mounting that argument for a couple of years now, and there's now a substantial amount of evidence that that's not true."

While the authors were studying these pro-ISIS accounts, users returned repeatedly under the same display name, but the size of their network and pace of their activity significantly shrunk.

Berger criticized social media companies for using free-speech arguments to allow terrorist groups to use their platforms.

"There's not free speech, there's corporate-managed speech," Berger said. "... These companies are managing speech. They're deciding what speech is acceptable and what isn't."

Of course, English-speaking ISIS supporters still have a troubling presence on social networks.

Another report from George Washington University, released late last year, showed that ISIS is still effectively using platforms like Twitter to recruit Westerners.

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