Scientists Track ISIS Activity On The Web, Suggest Algorithm Method Can Predict Future Terrorist Attacks

It's no secret that ISIS has recruited many followers through social media and other web channels. To address this problem, researchers at the University of Miami conducted a study to show how monitoring social media with the use of an algorithm can help to prevent future terrorist attacks from ISIS and non-related pro-ISIS groups.

By analyzing social media, scientists were able to track second-by-second ISIS sympathetic language. This led them to discover 196 active pro-ISIS groups.

Many believe that most of the pro-ISIS commentary on social media is "freedom of speech" that doesn't result in actual terrorism. However, the study reveals that social media is a hotbed for ISIS recruitment, so sympathizers can easily become members of ISIS if this behavior continues. The monitoring of this online activity by University of Miami researchers revealed some shocking facts about how simple conversations on the web quickly change to horrific terrorist acts.

New York City mourn victims of Orlando nightclub terrorist attack [Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images]
New York City mourn victims of Orlando nightclub terrorist attack [Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images]The over 190 pro-ISIS groups operated for at least 8 months in the beginning of 2015. During that short time, these groups accumulated 180,000 members. Lead researcher Neil Johnson, a Physicist in the university's College of Arts and Sciences, considers the short time span in which these organizations grew to be quite shocking.
"It was like watching crystals forming. We were able to see how people were materializing around certain social groups; they were discussing and sharing information--all in real-time. The question is: Can there be a signal of how people are coming collectively together to do something without a proper system in place?"
According to the study by Neil Johnson and his colleagues, the answer to his question is, yes. Using Einstein and Szilard's brilliant theory of the algorithms, scientists can create a mathematical equation to instruct computers to pinpoint ISIS related activity on the web. Using this technology, governments will not only be able to see conversations but will actually witness how these ISIS sympathizers come together and disseminate attackers into the world to commit crimes against humanity.

[caption id="attachment_3225698" align="aligncenter" width="500"]ISIS gun on sandbags [Photo by John Moore/Getty Images] Gun sits on sandbags as Syrian Rebel Militia prepares to fight ISIS[Photo by John Moore/Getty Images][/caption]These attackers may carry out acts of terrorism alone, but according to Johnson, they don't start out that way. Lone attackers are usually members of a group who can be stopped before they act by focusing on web-based group activity.

"Our research suggests that any online 'lone wolf' actor will only truly be alone for short periods of time. As a result of the coalescence process that we observe in the online activity, any such lone wolf was either recently in an aggregate or will soon be in another one. With time, we would be able to track the trajectories of individuals through this ecology of aggregates."
Although the study showed evidence that ISIS and pro-ISIS activity can be monitored on the web, it doesn't prove that using an algorithm can make predictions for future ISIS attacks. Recently, experts in the areas of terrorism and online communication have read the University of Miami's study and believe that it is only a start. Fellow J. M. Berger, of George Washington University's Program on Extremism, told the New York Times that more research is needed.
"This is an interesting approach, this is a potentially valuable approach, and more research should be done on the approach. But to jump ahead to the utility of it, I think, takes more work."
Berger may have a point, but Neil Johnson recently explained that the use of an algorithm is not the only tool that can help protect the U.S. from ISIS, but it offers an easier way of analyzing social media channels that the U.S. government is already monitoring.

Currently, the government is attempting to track ISIS by looking at individuals accounts on the many social media and blog sites the web has to offer. Here's what Johnson has to say about that.

"There's no one fish saying, 'Hey, I want everyone to be about five inches away from someone else, and we're going to have this shape.' "
The algorithm method of monitoring ISIS activity would allow them to search only the information relevant to ISIS and terrorism; it will leave out unwanted information and save the government a lot of time.

[Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images]