Applying some physics to study how terrorist groups grow online, a team of researchers has developed a model to identify behavioural patterns among Islamic State (IS) supporters, providing law enforcement agencies a roadmap to track their activities and help stop terror attacks.
The researchers from the University of Miami analysed second-by-second online records of 196 pro-ISIS groups on VKontakte, the largest online social networking service in Europe, which is based in Russia and has more than 350 million users from multiple backgrounds.
They found that even though most of the 108,000-plus individual members of these self-organised groups probably never met, they had a striking ability to adapt and extend their online longevity, increase their size and number and reincarnate when shut down.
This inspired “lone wolves” with no history of extremism to carry out horrific attacks like the deadliest mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
“It was like watching crystals forming. We were able to see how people were materialising around certain social groups; they were discussing and sharing information – all in real-time,” said Neil Johnson, physicist in the college of arts and sciences.
“The question is: Can there be a signal of how people are coming collectively together to do something without a proper system in place?” he asked.
The answer, according to the study to be published in the journal Science, is yes.
Generalising a mathematical equation commonly used in physics and chemistry to the development and growth of ad hoc pro-ISIS groups, the team witnessed the daily interactions that drove online support for these groups, or “aggregates,” and how they coalesced and proliferated prior to the onset of real-world campaigns.