We mapped the Facebook fans of some of the most violent jihadi organizations in the world.
Pop stars, sports teams and Hollywood actors aren’t the only ones with global followings on Facebook. Jihadis, too, have lots of rabid fans from around the world.
This global fandom to some degree mirrors the diversity of fighters on the ground in Syria, where the combatants have come from more than 80 countries, including Western nations like the U.K., France and the Netherlands.
Of those Facebook jihadi fans we were able to identify via their publicly available data, many express a strong religious affiliation, citing the likes of Al Qaeda or U.K., France and the Netherlandsas their employer. But despite a growing concern for privacy, and a near-ubiquitous trend for Western employers using social media profiles to screen employees, a large percentage of people who had liked extreme jihadi groups on Facebook did so side-by-side with listings for their actual places of work and study in Western countries. They list themselves as attending well-to-do high schools, Ivy League universities and military academies in the U.K., U.S. and elsewhere. They work at Google, Microsoft, Pizza Hut, JCPenney, Aeropostale and other globally recognized businesses.
Where in the West are the biggest pockets of radical Islam fandom? To find out, we picked 10 outspoken jihadis on Facebook and identified some of the groups they follow. We chose a total seven groups, covering a range of different countries, and then looked at where the people who follow those groups’ Facebook pages said they live. We also sorted the results to get rid of duplications among the people doing the liking.
As more jihadi groups use social networks to proselytize and even communicate with one another, governments and law-enforcement agencies halfway around the world are eager to know where the receptive audiences are located.
Turns out, Europe has way more jihadi fans than the U.S. does. Of the total 49,631 members in the groups we selected, 1,463 identify themselves as coming from European countries, while about 325 say they’re in the United States.
In Europe, the U.K. boasts 548 fans of the same pages—and London, with 260 fans, is far and away the most well-represented city in the data. Paris a distant second. Three of the four most well-represented cities in Europe are in the United Kingdom, with Birmingham and Manchester joining the capital on the list.
The U.S. numbers are much smaller, with New York City topping the city scales, and California taking the title for the state where most people are active on the jihadi Facebook pages we identified.
This ISIS page was deleted soon after we concluded our analysis.
Judging by their profiles, it’s clear that some are most likely expressing a passing interest or curiosity, while others may be monitoring the pages for work (journalists and academics). But others express consistently extreme views on their own page and also like a broad network of jihadi pages.
And some of these fans may be doing more than just liking the jihadi pages. While studies suggest that larger jihadi networks still rely on their own trusted forums, some rebel groups are using Facebook as a supplementary mechanism for contacting potential fighters.
Indeed, a large population of web-savvy European fighters have already made the trip to Syria, and they circulate that intelligence back to would-be jihadis. You can find long online conversations on social media that delve into the specifics of how to cross borders, how much money to bring, and what to expect upon arriving in the war zone.
So it stands to reason that the first contact a jihadi-curious teen or young adult may have with someone on the front line could be through Facebook.