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Women critical for online terrorist networks

The terrorist Islamic State group may be male-dominated, but women play a key role in its organization. Above, a suicide car bomb attack by the IS group rocks the Syrian city of Kobani in 2014.

Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images

Women critical for online terrorist networks

Given the brutal version of Islam promoted by the terrorist Islamic State group, which includes whipping—and much worse—for women who so much as show their hair, it may seem strange that many women recruits champion its cause. Are they more than just tools of propaganda efforts to burnish the IS group’s image? Much more than that, according to a new study of pro–IS groups on social media. The new data suggest that women are actually more important than men for the terrorist organization's online war.

The surprising results also suggest a new way to fight groups like the IS group online, says Karl Rethemeyer, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Albany, who specializes in social networks but wasn’t involved in the new study. "Counterterrorism authorities may want to use gender" as a shortcut for identifying key people in the propaganda networks, he suggests.

Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have cracked down on hate speech and on Web pages that support terrorism. As a result, IS group online activity has shifted elsewhere. Support for the IS group is exploding among the 360 million users of a Russia-based social media site active in Europe called Vkontakte, for example. So last year, a team led by Neil Johnson, a physicist at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, who models human organization and conflict, used that site to track the jihadi gender gap.

Gathering the data was no easy task. The researchers had to first identify all the pages on Vkontakte relevant to the IS group. Keywords such as “Caliphate” and “martyrdom,” in multiple languages, identified some, though not all. Once they did find a terrorism-supporting group or Web page, they were able to track the people who linked to it from their personal Vkontakte accounts. Examining the other groups that those people linked to revealed yet more IS group–related groups.

Aside from how labor-intensive it was to gather the data, the researchers also had to deal with the problem of the content. "It's full of beheadings, torture, dead bodies, and wounded bodies," Johnson says. But after 2 months of daily web-scraping, they had the data: More than 40,000 people linked to 170 pro–IS group social media groups.

The first surprise was just how many women their list contained: More than 40% were female. To see how central those women were to the groups, Johnson's 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 IS group group, then they were considered connected to each other. The result was a web with about 1 million links. Then, the team used some statistical tools from an area of mathematics known as graph theory to measure how information and resources flow through the network.

Far from being peripheral, women appear to be crucial nodes in the online social network that supports the IS group. A key measurement of importance for people in a network is something called their betweenness centrality (BC). Those with high BC may not be the boss that everyone reports to, but they serve as points of communication that connect far-flung 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 other words, they are the more important links for communication. And in the pro–IS group groups on Vkontakte, the BC score of women was on average twice as high as that of men, the team reports today in Science Advances.

That is striking, Johnson says. "In typical everyday situations, such as corporate settings, the BC ratio of women-to-men is known to be less than one." That is, women are usually less central and more peripheral in male-dominated organizations. But when it comes to promoting terrorism, Johnson says, "a woman will on average be a conduit for twice as many pieces of information, know-how, and materials." 

So are women the key to beating the IS group? If women started abandoning the IS group, the online propaganda machine would fall apart far more quickly, the new study predicts. In fact, given their important role for disseminating information, says Rathemeyer, changing women's hearts and minds may be more effective than winning over the men.