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Tracking the Islamic State — With Words

The entire world is talking about ISIS. And we can use big data to find the message amid the clamoring voices.

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Each day brings with it new headlines charting the relentless spread of the Islamic State. As of this past February, more than 20,000 foreign volunteers, including 3,400 Westerners, had flown into Islamic State-controlled territory from 90 countries. High-profile attacks inspired by the group on foreign soil, from the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris to those on a Tunisian museum and the Canadian Parliament, to an attempted mass shooting in Texas, combined with its sharp media savvy, have rapidly enhanced the Islamic State’s international visibility as well as its recruiting base.

And while those groups monitoring its geographic spread have produced a proliferation of maps charting the Islamic State’s physical footprint, there have been relatively few attempts to visually chart the broader global discussion around the organization — that is to say, to generate a map that allows us to see the reach and scale of the Islamic State narrative as the media outlets around the world are depicting it so that we might be able to click on any location on Earth and see what has been reported in the media about the Islamic State with respect to that location.

We’ve certainly got the tools. Using the Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT) project, which monitors local media around the world and live-translates 65 languages, along with Google’s BigQuery system and CartoDB’s online mapping platform, the map above offers a glimpse into the global dialogue about the Islamic State, drawing on information culled from nearly 725,000 articles published between Feb. 19 and June 7 that mention the organization by name.

Although the locations marked above do include areas where the Islamic State has physically launched attacks, conducted recruiting activities, opened training camps, and forged new alliances, it also includes the hometown of an Islamic State victim, the site of an anti-Islamic State rally at a mosque, a reference at a campaign rally, and discussion of its brutality and tactics. In short, it is a map of how the world’s media is covering the threat of the Islamic State. Each dot represents a location mentioned in a published news article in close proximity on the page to a mention of the Islamic State over the past three months across all 65 languages that GDELT monitors.

Clicking on a dot on the map above will display a list of monitored coverage mentioning both that location and the Islamic State. To indicate the passage of time, the animated gif below shows a cumulative view of all the locations mentioned in Islamic State-related news coverage in 15-minute increments over the time period, accentuating the group’s accelerating geographic spread.

To be sure, there are enormous challenges involved in mapping the news media, from correctly separating the body text of a news article from surrounding insets, footers, advertisements, and navigation bars; to translation errors; to limitations of the underlying data-mining tools. Mapping the Islamic State proved to be especially difficult due to the group’s prevalence in the public discourse, which regularly invokes the group’s name in numerous contexts unrelated to actual coverage of the group itself.

On the technical side, the “breaking news” insets that news sites often use to report on the Islamic State’s major attacks occasionally make it difficult for the algorithms to correctly distinguish the core body of a news article from unrelated insets for different articles, which can cause mentions of the Islamic State to bleed into other coverage. Although aggressive filtering can mitigate these errors, it also has the potential to eliminate a great deal of relevant coverage, especially when coupled with translation error. For example, requiring that articles mention the Islamic State three or more times would miss articles such as this one on a Russian teenage girl.

In the map above, a higher-than-usual density of mistakenly tagged articles was permitted in order to maximize the inclusion of more obscure coverage and casual mentions in order to provide the broadest possible cross-section of the global news discussion of the Islamic State. Thus, when you click on the map, you will find a number of incorrect results. But if you scroll through the results or click on neighboring locations, you will find a large number of relevant results scattered within.

Even without algorithmic error, information on the organization’s reach and activities is often highly conflicting. A CNN article claiming that Tataouine, Tunisia, had become a waypoint for Islamic State fighters was followed two days later by strenuous denials from the Tunisian government. A pledge of allegiance by the al-Mourabitoun group was followed less than 24 hours later by a renunciation from the organization’s leader. A February claim that 19 Hazaras kidnapped in Afghanistan had been taken by the Islamic State was backtracked in May. Nigeria’s former chief justice refused to comment on allegations that his son had left the country to join the Islamic State. The Canadian government remained silent over accusations that someone affiliated with its intelligence service had helped ferry three British schoolgirls to Syria. The April cyberattack on TV5Monde is increasingly being attributed to Russian hackers rather than to Islamic State sympathizers. Such a chaotic and conflicting information environment makes robust assessment of the Islamic State’s global reach difficult at best, but maps, like the one above, allow us to see how the media is often self-correcting, with initial published reports being corrected over time.

Even those activities that appear clearly attributable to the Islamic State can be difficult to assess. The map above is filled with examples of website and social media accounts defaced with the black Islamic State flag. As with all things cyber, it is difficult to separate attacks sponsored by the Islamic State itself and its sympathizers from false-flag attacks by criminal elements and rebellious teenagers leveraging the chaos for their own ends. From the Sequoia Park Zoo in California and Eldora Speedway in Ohio, to a cocktail bar in Somerville, Massachusetts, cyberattacks have hit across the entire United States, replacing homepages with screens featuring the black Islamic State flag. Websites from other countries are far from immune, with the Islamic State flag appearing on sites ranging from the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre to the Chilean Ministry of Defense, while Islamic State graffiti appeared, in physical form, on Bermuda‘s cabinet building. Seeing all of these attacks arrayed geographically on the map above really drives home the enormous reach of cyberattacks claiming to be by the Islamic State.

That the Islamic State’s reach extends beyond Syria and Iraq is without question. Its media savvy has drawn recruits from at least 90 countries. Among them: nine Sudanese university students in the United Kingdom, a college student in Russia, a Jamaican teenager, a Beaumont, Canada, high school student, an Augusta, Georgia, man, and even a Joliet, Illinois-based National Guardsman. The general secretary of the Islamic Association of St. Lucia worries that militants from the Caribbean fighting in Syria will return home to conduct attacks, while the Zambian Muslim community warns of domestic recruitment efforts. Even the idyllic environs of the Maldives has provided more than 100 fighters and hosted a 300-person mass march in support of the Islamic State in September 2014. Yet, placing these on a map conveys the reach of the Islamic State’s recruiting far better than a dry statistical list in a government report.

Islamic State recruitment efforts in Europe have forced the region to recalibrate its security posture, with Britain, Germany, and Ireland among the countries that have proposed or enacted sweeping new anti-terrorism laws. Iceland has explored granting police “proactive investigation” authority that would permit authorities to investigate individuals not presently under suspicion of criminal activity or intent, while Malaysia passed new anti-terrorism legislation granting broad powers to detain and monitor those suspected of threats. Connecting each of these responses with Islamic State-related news relating to each country offers a window into the driving forces behind these changes.

The increasing reach of the Islamic State into neighboring countries has provided a steady flow of hostages. Libya alone has seen the kidnappings of 86 Eritrean refugees, nine foreign oil workers, two North Koreans, and two Tunisian journalists. A Romanian mineworker was kidnapped in Burkina Faso, a Syrian rebel leader was captured in broad daylight in Turkey, and 500 Iraqi boys were snatched, allegedly to serve as suicide bombers. Those kidnapped, killed, and threatened by the group serve to connect the conflict to cities throughout the world. Colombian newspapers report on two citizens killed in the Islamic State-inspired attack in Tunisia, while an Assyrian church in Modesto, California holds a vigil for Assyrian Christians taken hostage by the Islamic State, including a former local resident. An Ecuadorean cartoonist receives an anonymous death threat, while U.S. military members from Springfield, Missouri, and San Juan County, New Mexico, appear on an Islamic State “hit list.” A former white supremacist in Kamloops, Canada, works to fight recruitment of young Canadians, while a Brantford, Canada, mosque holds an open house in which it denounces Islamic State followers as “criminals, not believers.”

Discussion of the Islamic State permeates domestic U.S. politics, particularly in Republican circles. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker famously told the audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February that “tak[ing] on 100,000 [pro-union] protesters” in 2011 prepared him to “ensure that the threat from radical Islamic terrorists does not wash up on American soil,” while Sen. Lisa Murkowski invoked the threat from the Islamic State as a rationale for sparing Fort Wainwright, Alaska, from defense spending cuts. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence received widespread media attention in February when he claimed President Barack Obama was “unwilling to call Islamic extremism what it is,” and Sen. Lindsey Graham kicked off his presidential candidacy in South Carolina by outlining his intent as president to target the Islamic State.

Reaction to and internalization of the Islamic State abroad has often focused on its brutality. Its violence against women has been likened to that of other insurgent movements, such as FARC in Colombia. Gen. John Kelly, head of U.S. Southern Command, noted further parallels between the Islamic State and FARC in their use of the media to generate sympathy, while citing the Colombian military’s response to FARC as a potential model for weakening the Islamic State. Others see parallels in its actions with those of the Nazis, the Japanese “Rape of Nanking,” and the xenophobia and anti-immigrant violence of South Africa. Its destruction of cultural heritage sites is likened to Greenpeace’s damage to the Nazca lines of Peru.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing parallels involves the Islamic State’s most violent and visceral trademarks: public beheadings and immolations. This past February, the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that provides legal services, released a report documenting nearly 4,000 “terror lynchings” in the United States from 1877 to 1950. From beheadings to body parts being hacked off and taken as souvenirs, from eye gouging to hot pokers, from castration to burning alive, African-Americans accused of even minor crimes were tortured and killed while “[t]he white men, women, and children present watched … enjoying deviled eggs, lemonade, and whiskey in a picnic-like atmosphere.” The report prompted a flurry of coverage noting that even the Islamic State, at its most gruesome, has failed to come anywhere close to the sheer barbarity of the atrocities committed in the United States less than a century ago.

Big data offers us a powerful new tool to survey the global narrative emerging around a terrorist organization like the Islamic State in order to grapple not only with its physical footprint, but with how the world is understanding it in real time. It allows us to explore such narratives at an unprecedented scale by examining more content in a single week than Western open-source agencies have translated in 30 years. The ability to look across three-quarters of a million news articles spanning 65 languages to create a single holistic map of the geography of discourse around a terrorist organization offers a fundamentally new approach to how we think of tracking terrorist narratives.

And by arranging each of the stories above geographically on a map, it converts a list of 725,000 articles into a visual narrative that makes starkly clear the massive geographic footprint of the global discussion about the Islamic State. It’s a new way of understanding what matters to us, and it’s just one of the ways in which big data is changing the way we see the world.

Image credit: Kalev Leetaru

Corrections, June 19, 2015: Islamic State graffiti appeared on Bermuda’s cabinet building; an earlier version of this article mistakenly said it appeared on the Parliament building. This year’s Conservative Political Action Conference took place in Maryland; an earlier version of this article mistakenly said it took place in Wisconsin.

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