ISIS has used the social media site to recruit foreign fighters, spread propaganda, issue threats to Western governments and spread footage of the gruesome murders of its captives.
The New York Times reported Thursday Twitter confirmed the suspensions took place on April 2, noting the number can’t be verified because Twitter doesn’t release its user data.
But the mass shut-down of ISIS and ISIS-friendly accounts is only a fraction of what’s out there. One census of ISIS-supporting accounts, between September and December 2014, showed there were at least 46,000.
Twitter accounts can be quickly replaced, usually within hours.
“After an initial wave of suspensions in September 2014, thousands of new ISIS accounts were created to replace or supplement those that had been lost. However, as the suspension campaign continued, significantly fewer new accounts were created in subsequent month,” terrorism expert J.M. Berger wrote for Newsweek last month.
Berger conducted the Twitter census along with data scientist Jonathon Morgan and released the results in a report released by the Brookings Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
The pair also found that some less prolific accounts “fly under the radar,” while other accounts are now locked,” allowing only a small group of known ISIS supporters to follow the accounts and read their tweets.”
This prevents other users from flagging the accounts or tweets for inappropriate content and leading to a suspension.
Even with so many accounts online, it’s only a “relatively small group of hyperactive users” that are behind the “social media success” of ISIS, Beger and Morgan wrote.
The New York Times interacted with some anti-ISIS Twitter users who track and/or report ISIS-linked accounts. The Times quoted them using their Twitter usernames, as they wished to protect their identities “for safety reasons.
“This has zero effect on the number of active accounts and accomplishes nothing,” @xrsone said. “In fact the number of active accounts has grown,” said @xrssone, who claimed to have compiled a list of more than 26,000 accounts belonging to ISIS fighters and ISIS supporters.
Another such Twitter activist, @JewHadi, has tracked the suspended accounts. @JewHadi told The Times that one ISIS Twitter user has gone through more than 120 accounts.
But even if a mass account suspension doesn’t prevent ISIS and its followers from continuing to disseminate propaganda and threats, the suspensions have proved frustrating and led to a threat against Twitter itself.
Twitter released a statement March 2 saying it was working with law enforcement authorities after an online message urged ISIS followers to kill Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey and other employees.
READ MORE: Islamic State threatens to kill Twitter employees and co-founder Jack Dorsey
“Your virtual war on us will cause a real war on you,” reads a post translated by Buzzfeed. “We told you from the beginning it’s not your war, but you didn’t get it and kept closing our accounts on Twitter, but we always come back. But when our lions come and take your breath, you will never come back to life.”
– With files from Andrew Russell