Islamic State backers find new way to share propaganda: Instagram

As the Islamic State continues to search for new methods to recruit members and share its propaganda, it's increasingly turned to social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter.

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But as those accounts have been shut down, the Islamic State and its supporters are making use of ephemeral messaging and in particular, one social network that has largely been controversy free: Instagram.

Utilziing Instagram's Stories features, which has posts disappear after 24 hours, the Islamic State has started to shift some of its recruitment methods towards the Facebook-owned social network in hopes of gaining new members.

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Software research group Ghost Data found there are more than 50,000 accounts linked to Islamic State supporters posting on Instagram Stories. Of the 50,000, a little more than 10,000 of them are described as strongly-linked to IS — they follow core IS accounts and are followed back, and about 30 percent of their posted content is about the group.

In April, Instagram said it had more than 700 million monthly active users. By comparison, Twitter had 328 million monthly active users and Facebook had 2.01 billion monthly active users, at the end of the second quarter, respectively.

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Andrea Stroppa, who is part of Ghost Data and is also connected to the World Economic Forum, said IS is doing this because of the quick-hit nature of Instagram Stories.

"They send a message that they know will disappear but they know who the audience is. They are using these stories because they know it is a safe channel to share information," Stroppa told the AP in an interview.

In a separate interview with Fox News, Stroppa said, "[I]t is possible that IS is using "ephemeral tools to 'hire' new militants."

Stroppa added they collected the Stories data from approximately 2,200 private profiles. The company also used artificial intelligence "extract demographic data from a Stories like age of Isis militants and origin (Asia, white, North Africa)." 

Instagram could not be reached for comment for this story.

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Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, said the crackdown by Twitter and Facebook is a big reason why the content is moving elsewhere. On places like Instagram and Tumblr, "you are usually looking at supporter-driven creations," he said. "I just don't see guys in Raqqa building Instagram stories."

In the past, Instagram's parent company, Facebook, came under pressure related to closing accounts of those who support the Islamic State.

At the height of Islamic State’s recruitment drive in the West in 2014 and 2015, the group’s propaganda was of a quality unseen in other extremist groups. On Wednesday, the U.N. General Assembly was focusing on extremist content on the internet, with social media front and center.

While the data may be unsettling to some, Stroppa said that he is hopeful that thanks to advances in technology, it may be harder for extremist groups to spread their message.

"And we bet that thanks to visual recognition and machine learning, in the future, will be possible to understand contents of Stories - very closely to real-time - and intercept possible useful signals with a good Accuracy," Stroppa said.

Follow Chris Ciaccia on Twitter @Chris_Ciaccia. The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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