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Social Media Support for IS Higher in Europe, US

Twitter has been an important tool for jihadists to spread their message. (Twitter)

Twitter has been an important tool for jihadists to spread their message. (Twitter)

The further you are from violence in the Middle East, the more likely you are to have a good feeling about the Islamic State and express those opinions on social media.

That finding comes from a new Italian study. Researchers at the University of Milan examined over two million Arabic-language social media posts from July to October of this year. They found positive, or good, feelings toward the Islamic State militant group was stronger in Europe and the United States than in Syria and Iraq.

In Syria, the group was described in a positive way in only eight percent of social media posts. In Iraq, the rate was 19.7 percent.

But support for the Islamic State in European countries was much higher. The study found that 31 percent of posts in Belgium were positive. In the United Kingdom, the rate was 24 percent.

In the United States, the support for the Islamic State among Arabic-language posters to Facebook and Twitter was 21.4 percent.

The countries with the highest levels of social media support were Qatar, at 47 percent, and Pakistan, at 35 percent.

Eric Saltman works for the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-terrorism group, in London. He says that people who are experiencing war and feel in danger have different position toward terrorist groups.

“Those experiencing war, who are threatened and endangered will have a different stance toward a terrorist organization,” he said. “Whereas the more distance you are from the violence, the more likely you can sympathize with the propaganda and theology, that the ends justify the means.”

The research also showed that events like the execution of American James Foley intensified online messages both for and against the Islamic State.

The researchers used algorithms -- a series of rules -- to study social media posts with IS-related words like ‘Syria’ and ‘Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.’ They said that men wrote about 75 percent of the posts they studied. Ninety three percent of the posts collected were from Twitter. The rest were posted on Facebook and other social media websites.

Jytte Klausen of Brandeis University is the founder of the Western Jihadism Project. The project explores jihadi activities in the West. She says the recent study explains what she called “substitute jihad.”

“It documents the extent to which jihadists and their supporters have captured Twitter for their purposes,” she said. “There are some hyperactive hubs in countries, like Belgium, that spend a lot of time disseminating [extremist] content.”

Professor Klausen thought the percentage of women included in the study was probably too low. She warned that being involved in substitute jihad is a “gateway to the broader jihad movement.”

The Italian study showed that Belgium had the highest percentage of positive views of the Islamic State on social media outside the Muslim world. A separate study found that Belgium has the highest per capita number of Western fighters in Iraq and Syria.

Guy Van Vlierden is a reporter for a Belgian newspaper. He also started a blog that documents Belgian jihadists. He says a few extreme Islamic State supporters posting on Twitter many times a day could have a big effect on the study’s findings.

He also said that by only looking at Arabic language posts, the study may have not included many posts by opponents of the Islamic State.

“Lots of IS opponents probably are well-integrated and don't tweet in Arabic, but in one of the official languages here,” he wrote in an email.

“The large amount of support in my country is consistent with the high number of fighters in Syria and Iraq, and it isn't wrong to say that for every Belgian fighter, there are at least ten people at home supporting them,” he wrote. “Tracking their communications on social media makes that completely clear. A sort of snowball effect, you can say.”

I'm Ashley Thompson

VOA’s Matthew Hilburn reported this story from Washington, D.C. Ashley Thompson wrote it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in this Story

theology – n. the study of religious faith, practice, and experience

peer-reviewed – adj. scholarly work (such as a paper or a research proposal) that has been checked by a group of experts in the same field to make sure it meets the necessary standards before it is published or accepted

jihadi – adj. war fought by Muslims to defend or spread their beliefs

gateway – n. something that is thought to lead to the use of a more dangerous thing.

snowball effect – n . a situation in which one action or event causes many other similar actions or events

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