How to Stop ISIS with Information Cascades

Arguably the most memorable quote from President Obama’s address to the nation in September 2014 was, “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIS through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy.” Hearing this for the first time, many Americans likely assumed that this would be accomplished through some sort of military or economic action, such as a boots-on-the-ground surge or sanctions against ISIS’s financial benefactors. However, researchers from Arizona State University (ASU) were recently featured in an article for their unconventional social-media based approach to achieving this objective. They have asserted that by harnessing effects of information cascades it is possible to impede the spread of ISIS’s online recruitment propaganda.

“The best way to fight a network is with another network.”

— Dr. Hasan Davulcu

ISIS has seen remarkable success in using websites like Facebook and Twitter to recruit young adults, most often those who are searching for a sense of belonging, around the world. In fact, ISIS has been so successful that an internal government memo from the US Department of State admitted that “ISIS had ‘trumped’ attempts by several of the world’s most technologically advanced nations to thwart its progress online.” However, current attempts by the CyberSocio Intelligent-Systems Laboratory (CySIS) at ASU hope to stall the spread of online extremist ideology.

Dr. Hasan Davulcu from the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering at ASU, explains, “Online recruitment by groups like ISIS tends to be based on appeals to alienated individuals by promoting utopias as pull-factors and anti-western sentiments as push factors. Once we identify the core pull factors, we can block their online content promoting violence, amplify voices that point to inconsistencies between their ideology and the reality, and bring to view alternative voices who present a vision of a more peaceful, tolerant and progressive world.”

The analysis of information cascades is a crucial online research tool for CySIS. As we have discussed in class, an information cascade “has the potential to occur when people make decisions sequentially, with later people watching the actions of earlier people, and from these actions inferring something about what the earlier people know.” In an information cascade, the information you infer from other’s choices may be more powerful than your own personal information. “The spread of messages, memes or news items that go viral can have a structural diversity which is telling,” explains professor Paulo Shakarian from CySIS. “Firstly, a message that disperses into a variety of online communities is more likely to go viral. For example, if you were to receive the same tweet from three work colleagues, that’s only really one source and so is unlikely to spread much farther. If, on the other hand, you were to receive a tweet from a family member, a work colleague and an old college friend, that’s potentially more significant. We have developed metrics to assess the significance of how a message or micro blog spreads online.”

Over the next five years, CySIS will focus on Twitter use in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Indonesia, Malaysia and the U.K. due to their geographical nearness to ISIS itself and/or their large minority populations. CySIS will conduct field research in order to understand the various complexities of information cascades and how they apply to Twitter as its use differs from country to country. Eventually, CySIS hopes to actively contribute to the fight against ISIS and make the academic community understand the real-world effects of information cascades.

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