Terror Bots – Researchers Call on Controlling Use of Bots as Recent Study Reveals IS Exploits Bots to Coordinate and Amplify Propaganda

February 15, 2023

Vienna, February 15, 2023 – A recent study published online in Terrorism and Political Violence (Taylor&Francis) entitled “Automating Terror: The Role and Impact of Telegram Bots in the Islamic State’s Online Ecosystemsheds light on how the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group exploits bots on social media platforms like Telegram to coordinate sympathisers and amplify and automate the group’s propaganda.  

The findings of Abdullah Alrhmoun and Janos Kertesz, both from the Department of Data and Network Science at Central European University (CEU) in Vienna, Austria; and Charlie Winter from ExTrac in London, UK, indicate that IS employs bots as part of a deliberate and sophisticated strategy, in-keeping with its reputation as technologically forward-leaning. The research suggests that the labour-saving power of bots has been instrumental to growing and managing the large online community of IS sympathisers.   

The researchers collected over 1.2 million data points - Telegram posts - and used different variations of community detection algorithms to map a sample of IS’s Telegram network, and the bots within it. Such algorithms are able to identify related clusters of users and groups based on common subject matter and online behaviour.     

In the context of social media, bots usually manifest as automated accounts that publish or reshare content. The team found that, within the IS Telegram community, bots performed three key functions: publishing and promoting IS content and propaganda; moderating discussions; and administering groups, like blocking violators of group policies and permitting new members to access.  

The visualizations of the research illustrate both the placement of bots across IS’ networks to regulate the movement of users and content between sub-communities, and the concentration of bots at the centre of the network, which push content and propaganda from the network core to its periphery. For IS, then, bots are an important enabler of their digital media strategy, whether in terms of automating the administration of its sympathiser community or amplifying the reach of its propaganda and influence campaigns. Bots effectively stand in for official IS operatives online, and connect sympathisers together based on common ideology, all while minimising the exposure of, and thus risks to, IS operatives themselves. Further investigations suggest that other violent extremist groups have adopted similar approaches.    

Researchers conclude that both government security agencies and social media platforms should take note and explore what further steps could be taken to limit the use of bots as a tool of IS and other terrorist groups. 

For more on the research, please contact CEU PhD candidate Abdullah Alrhmoun at Alrhmoun_Abdullah@phd.ceu.edu or Professor Janos Kertesz at kerteszj@ceu.edu  

Notes for Editors:

The Department of Network and Data Science at the Central European University (CEU) carries out research in network science with a special focus on the foundations and applications of network science to practical data-driven problems. The Department organizes a BA/BSc in Data Science and Society as well as hosts 1- and 2-year MS programs in Social Data Science and a PhD Program and various Advanced Certificate Programs for CEU doctoral students.  

Data science tools and the network science approach offer a unique perspective to tackle complex problems, impenetrable to linear-proportional thinking. Building on decades of development of fundamental understanding of networks, the modern data deluge has opened up unprecedented opportunities to study and understand the structure and function of social, economic, political and information systems.  

The concept of networks has become indispensable in the social, information, biological, and physical sciences. Data-driven network science aims at explaining complex phenomena at larger scales emerging from simple principles of network link formation. A key element of the mission of the Department is to work across disciplines to bring network and data science tools to many fields of the social sciences, and related areas.