Researchers Think Maths and Social Media Can Protect Us From Islamic State

By Angela Chen on at

After spending a year going through pro-Islamic State (IS) groups on social media, researchers have come up with an algorithm they think might predict attacks. If only it were that easy.

Researchers analysed pro-IS posts and groups on VKontakte, the so-called Russian Facebook. They chose VKontakte partly because its members are diverse, including Chechen members that IS wants to recruit, and partly because (to their credit) social networks stateside shut down IS material pretty quickly. That’s good for our peace of mind, bad for a bunch of physicists looking for mentions of beheadings and pledges of allegiance to IS in multiple languages.

The result, detailed in a study published Thursday in Science, is an algorithm the researchers claim could have been used to predict the 2014 attack on the Syrian town of Kobani. That seems exciting, but since Kobani is the only one of many IS attacks that the algorithm has predicted, Faiza Patel at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, had this to say: “Frankly, at this point, I don’t think they’re predicting anything.”

The algorithm is probably more interesting from a data-mining methodology perspective than it is actually useful (to their credit, the researchers mostly acknowledge this). They focused on on small groups of pro-IS members that formed online instead of aggregating huge amounts of social-media data or tracking individual people. The idea is that quashing these small groups early can prevent the members from joining the larger IS organisation later on. It also makes sense that there might be a spike in the number of small groups formed online just before an attack. But that still doesn’t mean that the algorithm is going to keep us from being taken by surprise by terrorist attacks.

These researchers are hardly the first one to try to use maths to fight ISIS. US intelligence agencies have noted that traffic spikes on a YouTube video might predict attacks – a finding that, if not very useful, is sort of funny. But hey, it could be worse: at least this algorithm is better than what Sheryl Sandberg, herself part of Facebook's top brass, who suggested deploying “like attacks” to fight the murderous terrorist group. [New York Times]