Even as Islamic State tries to fund a large amount of its atrocious terror activities by abducting and selling thousands of women and doesn’t think twice before executing women who refuse to become sex slaves under the group’s ‘sexual jihad’, a new study has found that women are playing an important part for the terror organization’s as well as pro–ISIS groups’ online war on social media.
Stefan Wuchty, lead researcher and associate professor at the University of Miami, describes women disseminating pro-ISIS content as “the glue that holds the network together” that plays a more central role in spreading extremist propaganda, brokering distant parts of the network, connecting followers, channeling funds, passing recruitment messages, posting videos of beheadings and audio files of prayers online.
— Andrea F. de Cesco (@AndreaFdeCesco) June 16, 2016
For the study, the researchers looked at two terrorist groups: the Provisional Irish Republican Army from 1970 to 1998, and the Islamic State from 2015. To find pro–ISIS or pro–IRA group profiles that explicitly expressed support for the two terrorist groups by posting their propaganda, researchers searched through multiple hashtags on VKontakte, a Russia–based social networking site, with over 360 million users, used by ISIS to spread propaganda among Russian-speaking population. Once they managed to find pro–terror group profiles, researchers extracted profiles of nearly 42,000 individuals linked to 170 pro–ISIS groups on Vkontakte; Wuchty said about 40% out of 42,000 pro-ISIS users were women.
— The Conversation S+T (@TC_scitech) June 16, 2016
The new research could mean that authorities trying to disrupt terror cells should also consider women as potential targets of law enforcement actions, the researchers suggested. If women started abandoning the ISIS group, the online propaganda machine would fall apart far more quickly, they predicted.
“If you want to hit such a network hard, you would have to go after people who are keeping the network together. It turns out women were in central positions. While they were not having a lot of connections, they had a high betweenness centrality [an indicator of how “central” an individual is in their social network]. They had a lot of interactions [with group members] but not more than men. We were surprised that they [women] were brokering between the different parts of the network.”
More often than for men, the women were part of the shortest paths of communication from one person to another. In the pro–ISIS groups on Vkontakte, the betweenness centrality score of women was on average twice as high as that of men, the researchers reported in Science Advances. Science Magazine writes:
To see how central those women were to the groups, the research team created a network graph, a map of the social connections among all the people. If any two people were a member of the same ISIS group, then they were considered connected to each other. The result was a social network with more than a million aggregated links.
In response to the new findings, Karl Rethemeyer, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Albany, remarked:
“The surprising results also suggest a new way to fight groups like the ISIS online. Counterterrorism authorities may want to use gender as a shortcut for identifying key people in the propaganda networks. In fact, given their important role for disseminating information, changing women’s hearts and minds may be more effective than winning over the men.”
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