After the hype, what about the data? Part 1: the Telegram ‘Cull’

After the hype about the removal of ISIS Telegram channels, this post examines the data on the information ecosystem to sort the anecdotal observation from evidence-based research.

Central to the authentic understanding of the Jihadist movement is the ability to locate and understand the content. Unfortunately there is tendency among some researchers to give prominence to and draw conclusions from the limited content they can locate. This is a problem we have highlighted previously including in the New Netwar and in earlier posts:

Content, especially Arabic language content, is fundamental to the movement, yet the lingual & theological expertise to understand it is almost constantly neglected and lacking in research. This blind spot allows the jihadist movement to reorganize and recuperate out of view of contemporary research and commentary.

Notes on the ecosystem

The difference between the content commentators hype and tweet about because they can find it, and the content that is important to the Jihadist movement, is one of the fundamental and often poorly understood distinctions in contemporary academic study of the Jihadist movement. 

Two recent events, the recent purge of Nashir channels on Telegram and the UK government putting pressure on Jihadology, have, individually and collectively, highlighted how important it is for researchers to have a sufficiently nuanced understanding of the movement to be able to locate content themselves. Research should get beyond the easy to find Nashir network, which are there to give entry level access to the movement. 

The inability to penetrate beyond a few entry level daily news channels, leads to challenges compounded by the lack of serious data analysis on the extent to which material produced by ISIS, AQ and other Jihadist groups, is actually available online.

In just the last few weeks there have been conflicting accounts.In one a researcher with funding from Facebook claimed that “This stuff isn’t readily available on the surface web like it used to be. If you’re not on Telegram or in a forum, the options are increasingly limited.” While Peter Neumann defended Jihadology by saying  “the online nature of this makes it ubiquitous”. 

Something being ubiquitous tends to be mutually exclusive with not being readily available. What these comments and other commentary has laid bare is how often commentary is based on opinion and anecdotal observation, at best, rather than evidence-based research.

In the following pair of two posts we look at the data behind these two events.

  • This first post examines theextent to which the removal of fringe Nashir channels on Telegram impacted the information ecosystem.
  • The second uses data analysis to test the recent UK government suggestion that Jihadology could be used as a convenient platform for extremists to access videos and messages from outlawed terror groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, to answer the question whether Jihadology is used to access content by groups such as ISIS and examine whether some researchers and commentators play an unwitting role in the jihadist information ecosystem.

Part 1: The Telegram Cull.

BBC Monitoring reported that what they term the ‘Telegram cull’ followed attempts by ISIS to “beef up its presence on the platform”. Focusing on Nashir, BBC Monitoring continued …

jihadist group operates a network of multiple channels and groups on Telegram under the “Nashir News Agency” brand.


https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c200h0s4

The focus on Nashir channels was repeated by others, Pieter VanOstaeyen noted; “Remarkably large take down of ISIS Telegram channels and groups tonight”and in a later Tweet “Of around 60 Nāshir News accounts I was following 4 remained active”.

Shiraz Maher, had similar problems, “It was a rough morning for me. Major take downs of the channels/groups I was in”.  These and similar observations fueled the impression that the jihadist network was under significant pressure. “Not only ISIS accounts, everything that even remotely reeks of Jihad is getting hit” tweeted Pieter Van Ostaeyen.  He later joked “There was a major disruption in the Dark Side of The Force, but they’re back again”

Jihadist Ecosystem – 10 December 2018  

To ascertain the actual impact, a review of 410 human verified Jihadist groups and channels on Telegram, using the same methodology as the previous post, was conducted. It showed that the information ecosystem has remained resilient. The data from the 410 channels and groups shows that many survived the purported cull.

Followers

The followers / members of the groups remain at an average of over two thousand with the largest garnering over 70,000 followers. There are over 200 channels with more than 400 followers. However, it is currently unclear if these are different individuals in the groups – as discussed in an earlier post


Mean 2,870: Median 452: Maximum 71,807

Longevity

The time elapsed since the creation of the channel / group also provides clear evidence that the information ecosystem has remained uninterrupted. The average length of time a channel has been operating is greater than one year (Mean 380.1 and median 380.6 days). 

The average length of time a channel has been operating is greater than one year

The longevity of channels shows that recent chatter about losing access to channels has had an impact only on those with limited access to Jihadist channels, and who struggle to locate the content. For the wide range of jihadist sympathisers who can read and understand the meaning of the content, access has continued largely unabated.

Views

Access to content shown by views on individual posts shows that users are accessing the content. Even an overly cautious estimate where all duplicate view counts are removed to avoid double counting, produces a conservative 135,256,000 total views. 

The Network

Decoding the Swarm logic of the Media Mujahidin is in part based on understanding the network structure.

Analysing the last 500 posts from each of the channels / groups and extracting the data of posts forwarded from other channels / groups /users, produces the network graph.

The graph has 3410 nodes in total, 2831 (83%) of which are part of an interconnected giant component. 

The network perspective confirms what the longevity and availability of accounts had suggested, that the information ecosystem has remained intact.

This is a repeat of much of the analysis on Twitter where an inability to find content was misconstrued as evidence the content did not exist.

Unfortunately, as we demonstrated in the New Netwar, at the same time that researchers were reporting they could find very little content on Twitter, the platform was used to drive a large portion of traffic to Jihadist content. Similarly, today commentary based on the narrow soda straw of Nashir and similar channels is to miss a wide range of the content, communication and meaning which occurs on Telegram.

Information Ecosystem on Telegram

Despite the chatter about a ‘wave’ of channels and groups becoming inaccessible and commentators losing access to large numbers of Nashir channels the network is still there and remains accessible to those who know how to access it. From the user perspective, the removals would barely rank as an inconvenience.  

The findings of this post repeats the findings of the previous analysis of Telegram Channels. Those findings were:

  • The graph shows that Jihadist Telegram Channels form a series of interconnected clusters.
  • Despite attracting the greatest attention from Western commentators, the Nashir News cluster is a tiny part of the overall ecosystem.
  • AQ and ISIS clusters are distantly connected.
  • There is a cluster of Jihadist sympathizers and supporters which align closely with neither ISIS nor AQ.
  • The creation of content archives on Telegram ensures users who see themselves as murabiteen (horse backed warriors guarding Muslim territory) are able to access the content needed to conduct ghazawat (raids) onto other platforms.

Major IS cluster

A closer look at the major IS cluster shows 27 statistical interconnected clusters. Each of these clusters has a particular thematic focal point, including a range of specifc theological elements. Within this major cluster there is a further ‘core’ group of channels, as well as channels relating to a range of Wilayat.

Even within just this major IS cluster there is significant range of material which provides a deeper view of the movement than may be realised if one begins from a perspective that nashir are a core part of the ecosystem. The idea of ‘core nashir’ is an oxymoron. Losing access to nashir would barely register if one genuinely has access to the breadth of content at the core which, needless to say, is mainly in Arabic.  

Soda Straws

Adopting a soda straw mentality, where a small part of the information ecosystem – in this case the Nashir network – is talked up and given an overblown sense of prominence in the jihadist information ecosystem, inhibits the authentic understanding of ISIS and Jihadist activity online.

The soda straw mentality comes in numerous forms the study of jihadist groups and terrorism more broadly. Some are based on the very limited access to content. The recent commotion and Twitter chatter about a wave of Nashir deletions highlights many of those caught up with this particular issue as genuine access would deter anyone from thinking the nashir represent anything other than a small fraction of the activity.

Other soda straws appear from the way individuals handle data or cherry pick time periods which create impression of decline, strong correlations to territory and ‘full-fledged collapse’. Nafeez Ahmed’s The Astonishingly Crap Science of ‘Counter-Extremism’ should be required reading.   

Conclusion

This post replicates the earlier finding that the Nashir network is part of the ISIS Telegram network, and a very small part of the overall information ecosystem. As a result, much of the contemporary commentary suggesting Telegram (and largely Nashir channels) is the place to get content, is based on anecdotal observations derived from gazing down a narrow soda straw at an often fringe group of accounts. There is a largely unobserved network of accounts which meant those with genuine access barely noticed the removal of Nashir channels.

If commentary is based on a level of access to Jihadist content where removal of the Nashir channels is noteworthy, for example for the authors of this report,one has to view claims that the research authentically reflects the breadth of ISIS activity with a degree of skepticism.

Central to the authentic understanding of the Jihadist movement is the ability to locate and understand the content. Otherwise the study of Jihadist groups becomes dislocated from the meaning and purpose of the movement and produces interpretations of the movement using misplaced notions of crime,rap, and the ‘naïve notion’ of Utopia. In contrast, Jihadist groups have produced tens of thousands of documents, outlining their understanding and intended application of theology. For example, Anwar al-Awlaki described;   

People like Shaykh Abdullah Azzam and Shaykh Yusuf al ‘Uyayree.They wrote amazing books, and after they died it was as if Allah made theirsoul enter their words to make it alive; it gives their words a new life.

Rasoolullah (sallallahu ‘alayhe wassallam) said the at-Taifah will prevail. Prevail here means the prevailing of their da’wah and not always their battles. They could loose the battle but their da’wah will achieve victory and be available. Nobody can stop their da’wah. The idea is that it will keep this group strong from generation to generation.


Seventh Meaning of Victory, Yusuf al ‘Uyayree Thawaabit ‘ala darb al Jihad (Constants on the Path of Jihad) Lecture series delivered by Imam Anwar al Awlaki (Quoted as transcribed)

Put simply, whether it is a battle or a channel on Telegram, for Jihadists part of the victory they seek stems from ensuring their actions give da’wah. It is the encoded theological aspects such as this, rather than speculation about crime and utopia, that allows users to move beyond the Nashir based fringes. Being able to identify theological elements which allow individuals to access a greater breadth of Arabic content should be a basic requirement for anything above a degree level researcher.


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