Scientists have recently turned to math and social media to predict the next terrorist attack. A group of University of Miami-based researchers may have found an algorithm that would help us prevent another potential terrorist strike.
Identifying signs of an incoming acts of terrorism is vital to saving lives. In fact, observing and monitoring social media posts are an obvious start for anti-terrorism security experts and government agencies to search for clues that suggest a possible strong influence by radical groups through sharing of posts that incite or glorify violent acts of terrorism.
For instance, Omar Mateen posted a series of ISIS-inspired threats and other extremist posts on Facebook prior to the recent mass shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub on June 12. While many people think that even pro-ISIS comments on social media constitute "freedom of speech" and do not necessarily lead to terrorist acts, a team of physicists from the University of Miami led by Neil Johnson thinks otherwise.
Their study reveals that social media actually serves as recruitment platform for ISIS sympathizers who may eventually become full-fledged ISIS members if their social media behavior does not change. Moreover, the researchers noted that even simple online conversations about extremist topics may drastically evolve into horrifying acts of violence.
As published in the journal Science, the research team searched for pro-ISIS posts each day on Russian social network VKontakte strafing for mentions of terror-mongering, beheadings, and bloodbath in various languages suggesting strong linkage between posting terrorist-inspired posts by the most aggressive users and the likelihood of terrorist attacks happening. They have sorted out and analyzed messages of around 108, 000 users across 196 chat groups that were under close observation.
"It was like watching crystals forming. We were able to see how people were materializing around certain social groups; they were discussing and sharing information-all in real-time. The question is: Can there be a signal of how people are coming collectively together to do something without a proper system in place?" Johnson said as quoted by the Inquisitr.
Using the theory of the algorithms, the researches managed to construct a mathematical equation to identify ISIS-related online activities. With this technology, government agencies can potentially witness how sympathizers band together before finally becoming full-fledged terrorists themselves.
"Our research suggests that any online 'lone wolf' actor will only truly be alone for short periods of time. As a result of the coalescence process that we observe in the online activity, any such lone wolf was either recently in an aggregate or will soon be in another one. With time, we would be able to track the trajectories of individuals through this ecology of aggregates," Johnson said further as quoted by Science Daily.
But other experts cautioned that while the recent may have potential value in terms of anticipating a looming attack, the research proponents should add more substance to their study to strengthen their claim.
"This is an interesting approach, this is a potentially valuable approach, and more research should be done on the approach," said J. M. Berger, a fellow in George Washington University's Program on Extremism as quoted by New York Times. "But to jump ahead to the utility of it, I think, takes more work."