A pro-IS network on Facebook consisting of several hundred accounts and reaching thousands of people managed to remain on the social media giant and spread its propaganda, according to a report released Monday by the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD).
The ISD report said its researchers tracked, analyzed and dissected the behaviors of this pro-IS network of Facebook accounts through ethnographic monitoring. This analysis taps into the study of individual cultures through the interpretation of behaviors and social interactions.
“ISIS supporters appear to be exploiting a major loophole on Facebook to hijack accounts from other users, using two applications that facilitate the intercepting of password reset text messages sent by the platform,” the ISD said in its report, using another acronym for IS.
It said several Facebook accounts “produced and shared tutorial videos in order to teach their fellow e-jihadists across the platform how to exploit this weakness in Facebook’s account security protocols.”
Bolstering IS narrative
Moustafa Ayad, the report’s author, said the main objective of these Facebook accounts is to bolster and sustain IS narratives online.
“They need to hold that territory and gain follower bases, before they can commence recruitment,” he told VOA. “These networks are there for spreading the message, and in their parlance, to ‘remain and expand.’ ”
“Remain and expand” was a motto that IS militants adopted when they once controlled large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria.
‘No tolerance for terrorist propaganda’
Facebook says it has “no tolerance for terrorist propaganda on our platform,” adding that it removes content and accounts that violate its policy as soon as they are identified.
“We had already removed more than 250 accounts referenced in ISD’s research prior to their report and have removed the remaining 30 accounts,” a Facebook spokesperson told VOA in a statement.
Facebook also said that in the first three months of 2020, it removed over 6 million pieces of terrorist content, the vast majority of which it detected before anyone reported it.
Experts say certain loopholes in Facebook’s automated detection system have allowed IS extremists to exploit the social media network.
“Facebook uses algorithms that are based on specific data and if you break those standards, you could bypass the algorithm in place,” said Dlshad Othman, a cybersecurity expert based in Washington.
“For example, when they [IS supporters] write the name ‘Islamic State’ on Facebook, they put multiple spaces between the two words, which allows them to bypass Facebook’s automated detection,” he told VOA.
But Facebook said in addition to its automated detection system, it also has 350 experts and investigators who primarily focus on countering terrorism and dangerous organizations as their core responsibility.
The ISD report argues that the survival of IS-related content on Facebook relies on certain modifications such as video effects that overlay major news outlets, while obscuring overt IS symbols and logos.
“Such content appears to be bypassing Facebook’s hashing technology for the automated detection of terrorist material, which is seemingly unable to identify lightly edited ‘official’ terrorist media,” the report said.
Ayad of the ISD says the notion that IS supporters don’t control territory online “is a myth,” because “they do.”
“They leverage it well, and they are adapting to all of the various measures being employed by social media companies and governments alike,” Ayad said.
ISD said networks of IS supporters on Facebook have plotted, prepared and launched organized “raids” on other Facebook pages, including those affiliated with the U.S. military.
“ISD researchers witnessed these ‘raids’ in real time, as followers posted instructions including the ‘target,’ ‘objective’ and content needed to flood comment sections with terrorist material.”
Such tactics were used to attack comments sections on the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Air Force Academy Facebook pages, the report said.
The U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations has reportedly launched an inquiry into the incident.
Othman, the analyst, said these methods are not unique to IS.
“Electronic criminals also use such techniques to hide themselves while carrying out malicious activities,” he said.