Twitter has become a key social media platform used by non-state actors in Syria to send propaganda to the rest of the world. For the most part Twitter has done a good job of clamping down on ISIS presence on the website. Twitter routinely bans ISIS supporter’s accounts and is quite fast at deleting ISIS propaganda on Twitter. While comparisons to a game of “whack-a-mole” are somewhat apt since ISIS supporters can easily make a new account after being banned, ISIS has not had any significant organized official presence on Twitter for a while. When it comes to Jabhat Al Nusra (Arabic: جبهة النصرة) though, Twitter has been less successful in clamping down on the spread of the group’s propaganda on Twitter.
Jabhat Al Nusra (JaN) is the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda and has been designated as a terrorist organization by both the American and Russian governments. Unlike ISIS, JaN is not closely covered by the mainstream media. It is partially due to this that the group manages to fly under the radar on Twitter. In this write-up we will be analyzing how JaN uses Twitter and Twitter’s Ads Program to spread its propaganda. We will also offer a possible explanation to how the group manages to rapidly recreate its propaganda network rapidly after being banned by Twitter.
Al Nusra’s Centralised Twitter Propaganda Network
For more than a year ISIS accounts on Twitter tend to be run by supporters or members than by the group itself. Jabhat Al Nusra on the other hand utilizes a more centralized approach. While there are several Nusra fighters on Twitter, Nusra has 10 official Twitter accounts through which it spreads its propaganda. Nusra’s propaganda network on Twitter is split between 1 main central account and 9 other secondary accounts. The 9 secondary accounts post various propaganda from various regions in Syria. The following graphic shows the various Twitter accounts and their geographic distribution. The accounts all follow each other suggesting centralization of the network.
These accounts are all very similar in style. They generally use a very neutral profile and header picture and never feature Al Nusra’s flag. To a non-Arabic speaker unfamiliar with the Syrian Civil War Nusra’s Twitter account may look more like that of a news organization than that of an al-Qaeda group.
Twitter Ads Program’s Role in Spreading Al Nusra Propaganda
Al Nusra has uploaded multiple 3 minute or longer propaganda videos to Twitter. The posting of these videos on Twitter is not unusual; however, for normal Twitter users there is a 30 second maximum on uploaded videos. Uploading videos to Twitter that are longer than 30 seconds requires participation in the Twitter Ads program (a process that can be seen in this video). This suggests JaN is using the Twitter Ads program to upload videos; this is a clear violation of several rules in Twitter’s Ads Policy.
The decision on whether a Twitter account is approved for the Ads Program is most likely done by an automated program. Brand new accounts generally can not join the Twitter Ads program; we tested this out by creating several Twitter accounts and trying to join the Ads Program. In each attempt to join the Ads program we were rejected, likely due to how recently the account was made. This raises the question of how Jabhat Al Nusra is able to suddenly recreate their propaganda network and enroll them in the Twitter Ads program in a matter of hours or days after their previous network was banned by Twitter.
It turns out that Jabhat Al Nusra was not making brand new accounts when their old accounts were banned by Twitter. They would instead take an old unused Twitter accounts and restyle them in the JaN Twitter style. This allows them to bypass the account age requirement needed to join the Twitter Ads program.
As is shown above, the accounts were created several years before they were used by JaN to spread their propaganda. Several of the accounts were even created well before Jabhat Al Nusra even existed. While it is possible that members of Nusra had held on to random Twitter accounts over the years, it is much more plausible that they simply bought accounts for this purpose. There are scores of websites online where you can simply buy Twitter accounts in bulk. While we do not have hard proof that this is what Jabhat Al Nusra did, it is the most plausible explanation to how they are able to rapidly recreate their propaganda network in response to Twitter bans.
Jabhat Al Nusra may not have the flashiness of ISIS when it comes to having sleek “Hollywood” style propaganda videos, but they certainly are more effective at operating on Twitter. Al Nusra runs a centralized Twitter network that often reappears online a matter of days or hours after the previous network was banned by Twitter. Al Nusra clearly has a good understanding of Twitter and the best practices to survive on the platform. While Twitter’s efforts to prevent the spread of ISIS propaganda have been quite effective, they must find a way to detect the Jabhat Al Nusra Twitter network early on and clamp down on the spread of Al Nusra propaganda before it can reach its intended audience.
The article was originally published on The OSINT Blog. Republished here with the permission of the author.