The Islamic State’s Amaq goes viral: Premium-enabled terror content on X

28 March 2024

By: Moustafa Ayad and Tim Squirrell

It has been ten years since the Islamic State Twitter census. In the decade since J.M. Berger and Jonathan Morgan’s seminal paper detailing the depth and breadth of Islamic State (IS) accounts on the platform, much has changed.

Twitter joined the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism. Twitter changed ownership. Twitter is no longer Twitter, but X. X has changed its ethos about trust and safety, going simply by “safety” now.

X has done away with its verification system, paving the way for a visually near-identical Premium account system. Paid-for subscriptions provide users with a blue checkmark, once a marker of verification, and allow them to get their content seen in more timelines and potentially net a profit through X’s Ads Revenue Sharing programme.

IS no longer populates X timelines with content as it did in 2014, but content from the complex terror attack it perpetrated, killing 137 people in the Crocus City Hall outside of Moscow, spread far and wide across the platform.

On 23 March, a day after the attack, a video of the attack made its way from Telegram and Islamic State forums onto X. The bodycam-like footage, branded as belonging to IS-affiliated media outlet  Amaq News Agency, featured a gruesome series of scenes. One attacker opens fire at close range on victims; another is seen slashing the throat of a victim laying on the ground.

Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) researchers began tracking the video during its first 24 hours. We found 73 posts of the video on the platform, some featuring IS branding — making it illegal in almost any jurisdiction. These videos, some of which were edited, some clearly showing the full details, received a cumulative total of 22 million views. In the 48 hours after its release, that would more than double to 59.9 million. The videos were posted by 70 unique users, out of which 43 — 61 percent — were Premium subscribers.

X was able to delete 40 of the posts of the video within the first 48 hours, approximately 57 percent of all the videos posted. X’s Rules on Perpetrators of Violent Attacks state that the platform may “remove posts disseminating manifestos or other content produced by perpetrators,” which the first-person Amaq video would have fallen under.

However, why some stayed up and why others were taken down within this dataset did not follow a clear pattern. The only identifiable trend was that the removed posts seemed to be linked to English-speaking users or Spanish-speaking users, while Arabic language posts of the same content managed to avoid takedowns. This possibly reflects the disparity in moderators between English language (2,294) and Arabic (12) on X.

This Dispatch is meant to provide an understanding of just how the video spread on X, and what its impact was on the platform and its users. While the monitoring for this dispatch was multiplatform, X was an epicenter for the video’s spread with scant content on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and TikTok.

To understand how millions were served a first-person video of an IS terror attack, it is necessary to understand how the X Premium system functions. According to X, the Premium system is an “opt-in, paid subscription”. It is a tiered system offering more features at each additional level. Basic users can edit tweets, post longer videos and receive reply prioritisation, while Premium and Premium+ users can monetise their content.

The Premium system was part and parcel of why the Amaq video received so many views on the platform. Most of the posts of the videos found were linked to Premium accounts, though data is unavailable as to which tier each account subscribed. What is certain were the view metrics – even though the platform has not provided these in detail, our data shows that Premium users’ posts of the Amaq video achieved millions of views.

In total, 43 Premium accounts posted the Amaq video, representing more than 59.1 million of the total 59.9 million views on March 24. The highest-viewed, unedited version of the Amaq video in the dataset, replete with its original IS branding, was posted by an X Premium account. It reached 3.3 million views in less than 48 hours and is still available on the platform as of 28 March, boasting 4.2 million views.

The account that posted the video purports to be an Arabic-language news account focused on the United States. This was indicative of the rest of the dataset: none were supporters of the Islamic State but were instead outraged by the horrifying content of the video. Some of the accounts, such as a Premium Arabic-language pro-Kremlin account, referred to the group as the “terrorist Daesh”, a supposedly derogatory term for the group that its supporters now use as a badge of honor. While they shared the full video they edited out the throat-slitting scene.

Understanding just why these accounts chose to upload and share the Amaq video is murkier territory than understanding how the video spread on X. The criminologist Simon Cottee has studied IS, as well as why people watch and post their videos as part of his 2022 book “Watching Murder: ISIS, Death Videos and Radicalization.” The book details the rationale people use both for consuming and posting gore and “atrocity propaganda” online.

Many users gravitated to the videos due to their sheer horrific nature or the rationale that the video represented a form of hard truth. In the wake of the attacks, Moscow deflected numerous Amaq claims of responsibility, including photographs and details of the attacks, choosing instead to point the finger to Ukraine. Several accounts used the video to emphasise the connection between IS and the attacks, spreading it across platforms as a rebuttal to the Kremlin’s claims.

Gone are the days of 2014 IS Twitter, but for one weekend in March 2024, the brutality of the group haunted the platform once more.