Looking for ISIS where the light is

The New York Times reports: After Orlando and San Bernardino and Paris, there is new urgency to understand the signs that can precede acts of terrorism. And with the Islamic State’s prolific use of social media, terrorism experts and government agencies continually search for clues in posts and Twitter messages that appear to promote the militants’ cause.

A physicist may not seem like an obvious person to study such activity. But for months, Neil Johnson, a physicist at the University of Miami, led a team that created a mathematical model to sift order from the chaotic pro-terrorism online universe.

In a study published Thursday in the journal Science, Dr. Johnson and Miami colleagues searched for pro-Islamic State posts each day from mid-2014 until August 2015, mining mentions of beheadings and blood baths in multiple languages on Vkontakte, a Russia-based social media service that is the largest European equivalent to Facebook. Ultimately, they devised an equation that tries to explain the activity of Islamic State sympathizers online and might, they say, eventually help predict attacks that are about to happen. [Continue reading…]

This is a classic example of the ‘streetlight effect.’

To anticipate acts of terrorism being initiated by ISIS, other terrorist groups or individuals, you’d need access to all forms of communication and planning. That means gathering information from a field much wider than social media and even wider than digital communications. What it requires is omniscience. Currently — and anytime in the foreseeable future — omniscience is unavailable, unlike grandiose propositions which pop up all the time.

When it comes to the art of the possible, too often the question that researchers seem to be preoccupied with is not whether they can accomplish their research goals but whether they can secure their funding needs.

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