Internet activist publishes 26,000 Twitter accounts he thinks are linked to ISIS

ISIS recruiting on teen social networks
ISIS recruiting on teen social networks

An online vigilante has released a list of more than 26,000 Twitter accounts he suspected are linked to ISIS.

The list was published Tuesday morning by an internet activist who goes by the name XRSone -- he provided the list to CNNMoney on condition of anonymity, out of fear for his safety. The database contains information about each account, including the date the account was created, how many followers it has, how many accounts it follows, when it was last active, the language of its tweets, and whether it has been suspended or deleted.

XRSone says the purpose of the giant data dump of Twitter (TWTR) accounts was to show how much questionable and potentially dangerous propaganda there is on Twitter -- and how easy it is to find. The activist said the data was collected from Twitter using information about accounts that the company makes publicly available.

If a coder with access to Twitter's public interface can find the accounts, then Twitter can too, XRSone argues. He says the social network needs to be more vigilant about shutting down these accounts.

"Twitter needs to be responsible for the content on its platform," he said.

Twitter, for its part, defended the job it does to weed out accounts and messages that violate its code of conduct.

"We review all reported content against our rules, which prohibit unlawful use and threats of violence against others," a spokesman for Twitter said in an emailed statement.

The problem with the data-dump method that XRSone supports is that it's a very inexact science -- and likely includes many people who aren't connected with ISIS at all.

CNNMoney sampled more than a dozen active accounts in the database and found mixed results. For instance, some of the accounts listed in the database were media outlets like Al Jazeera and Sky News. Others were journalists and activists spreading mainstream news.

On the other hand, one user listed in the database tweeted about missing an opportunity for "shahada," or martyrdom, adding "maybe next time" at the end of the tweet.

But even that tweet might not be banned by Twitter. The social network's rules ban violent and abusive threats, but Twitter does not specifically restrict hate speech or other "inflammatory content."

The list was also filled with dead accounts. Only 39% were listed as active. The rest, 61%, are either "dead" ("Sorry, that page doesn't exist!") or suspended.

XRSone admits the list isn't scrubbed nor is it entirely correct because he can't analyze all of the data himself.

"I'm hoping the public understands this tool was created to show what is possible," he said. "I'm hoping when more tools are integrated with it, the list will be more accurate."

Related: Meet the vigilante who hacks jihadists

Twitter has been criticized for failing to weed out abusive accounts, and the company has committed to doing a better job in the future.

In a memo to employees last month, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said he was embarrassed about the company's reputation and took "personal responsibility" for the company's failure to address the problem.

"We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we've sucked at it for years," Costolo wrote.

Twitter could start by making its reporting tool better. Right now, the platform requires users to answer several questions before a tweet or account can be reported. The company also makes it difficult for users to find the definition for each category of abuse. Each issue is explained on a separate Web page, meaning more work on the user's end.

XRSone believes the process could be simplified. Accounts would get reported faster as a result, and Twitter could take them down faster.

But even with perfect reporting tools and enough people to monitor and respond to flagged content, there's still another big problem.

Many ISIS-related accounts are set up with follower networks -- groups of users that follow one another called "swarm accounts." When one account in the network gets shut down, the others remain active and their follower base remains intact.

This makes it easier for accounts to multiply and shift, and harder for Twitter, or any online crusader, to catch up. XRSone says he'll continue to try nonetheless.

This isn't the first time he has uploaded data like this, but it is the largest.

-- CNN's Merieme Arif contributed to this story.

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