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Twitter Struggling To Shut Down Bot And Impersonation Accounts Created By ISIS

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It took days for ISIS to formally acknowledge the death of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The group's unofficial propagandists, however, moved more quickly. NPR's Hannah Allam has a story of how one scholar accidentally stumbled upon an apparent campaign to spin the news of Baghdadi's death.

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Last weekend, Mustafa Ayad was at the airport in Dubai, killing time on a six-hour layover. He's a terrorism researcher at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue. He tracks how militants use the internet. News was just beginning to trickle out about the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, so Ayad began searching for reactions.

MUSTAFA AYAD: I just started perusing Twitter as I'm sort of aimlessly walking around the airport.

ALLAM: In the comments on posts about Baghdadi, Ayad says, he noticed some odd activity.

AYAD: There were multiple replies that were the exact same content, exact same hashtags. And it was all ISIS-themed media.

ALLAM: Some of the messages praised Baghdadi. Others showed pictures of ISIS fighters eating together, projecting unity, brotherhood. Suspicious, Ayad began watching the accounts. He saw them get suspended only to pop right back up with slight changes to the username.

AYAD: I'm looking at these accounts, and I'm watching them tweet every second, and I'm like, this is insane. This is not a human being doing this.

ALLAM: Ayad started digging. He checked out profiles and followers to see if they were real. Most didn't pass the test. He says ISIS supporters either bought or hacked the accounts. The tactic is an old one, but Ayad was interested in the timing. He was watching a well-coordinated campaign unfold, an effort to blunt the news of Baghdadi's death.

AYAD: This was essentially a strategy to keep the narrative alive.

ALLAM: It works like this. Users take an existing pro-ISIS message or video and tweak it a little to try to evade tech companies' detection systems. The propagandists boost their views by using popular hashtags like the ones for protests in Iraq and Lebanon.

AYAD: They've perfected business marketing.

ALLAM: Ayad has now tracked nearly 500 of these accounts, and they're reaching tens of thousands of people. One, for example, was a seemingly real account of a youth club in the United Kingdom.

AYAD: It still had a bio that reflected that youth club's, like, mission - so essentially, join the club if you're 13 or 18.

ALLAM: But the account had gone dormant. After the Baghdadi news broke, it sprang back to life.

AYAD: It was hijacked on day three to pump out ISIS content.

ALLAM: This instant mobilization of an automated or bot-like network is a glimpse into two problems - the persistence of the ISIS propaganda machine and the difficulties in policing extremist messaging online. Twitter wouldn't comment on the specific network, but it says it suspended more than 115,000 accounts for terrorism-related violations from January to July. The company says its in-house enforcement tools are making a difference. Still, the problem is tech companies restrict content; extremists find loopholes. Again, Ayad.

AYAD: You can do it all day. You can take down accounts. New accounts will regenerate.

ALLAM: A week later, the network he spotted while bored at the airport is still spreading ISIS content. One tweet with a video announcing the group's new leadership just got suspended, but not before it had racked up more than 43,000 views.

Hannah Allam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hannah Allam is a Washington-based national security correspondent for NPR, focusing on homegrown extremism. Before joining NPR, she was a national correspondent at BuzzFeed News, covering U.S. Muslims and other issues of race, religion and culture. Allam previously reported for McClatchy, spending a decade overseas as bureau chief in Baghdad during the Iraq war and in Cairo during the Arab Spring rebellions. She moved to Washington in 2012 to cover foreign policy, then in 2015 began a yearlong series documenting rising hostility toward Islam in America. Her coverage of Islam in the United States won three national religion reporting awards in 2018 and 2019. Allam was part of McClatchy teams that won an Overseas Press Club award for exposing death squads in Iraq and a Polk Award for reporting on the Syrian conflict. She was a 2009 Nieman fellow at Harvard and currently serves on the board of the International Women's Media Foundation.