Pilgrimage to the Platform: The Repeat Audience for ‘Muslim News’

Pilgrimage to the Platform: The Repeat Audience for ‘Muslim News’
9th March 2020 Moustafa Ayad
Moustafa Ayad
In Insights

‘Baqiyya’

The audience of the Islamic State-affiliated Muslim News platform is in the parlance of the group — “baqiyya, or in English, remaining. There is a 7 in 10 chance that once a user stumbles on the site — possibly through its many vaulted, and coveted No. 1 search results via Google search — that same user returns. From its inception as a dark website, to a platform to collect cryptocurrency, to a high street shop window for Islamic State propaganda on the web aided by clever key words built for search. The process by which its evolved is as interesting as the audience it serves. It occupies 43 No. 1 search results for a range of Google search queries, all of which are always intimately tied to a user looking for “Muslim News.”

However, little is known about the audiences searching for “Muslim News.” Researchers at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) used online tools to dive into the audiences of Muslim News in an effort to understand the global network of users who make up the 569,325 visits the platform has had since November 2019. Over the course of three months, the site has averaged 189,775 visitors, who make up a mix of repeat and unique visitors. They are a predominately a mobile-user base and 77 percent, or 145,773, tend to overwhelmingly return. While search continues to be the biggest draw to the site, researchers found that there are mirror sites, built in the same manner as Muslim News, that feed about 43 percent of its audience directly to the platform. Muslim News sits at a nexus of search and an ecosystem of dark web and other, now defunct platforms that serve its audience. 

‘But Who?’

Just who visits sites like Muslim News are important questions for researchers, and what can they tell us about online Islamic State supporters globally, if anything. Using freely available tools online, researchers at ISD found that Muslim News averaged 44,002 unique visitors streaming in from Egypt, Canada, Algeria, Palestine and Saudi Arabia over a period of three months. Visitors averaged some 5 minutes and 30 seconds on the site, and browsed 5 pages on average before leaving. The largest share of visitors accessing the site used mobile devices. In January for instance, 125 percent more mobile visitors visited the site than desktop users, or 50,400 desktops to 123,654 mobile devices.

Egypt represented almost 18 percent of the traffic to the site over November to January, the highest of any country during that period. Interestingly, Canadian IP addresses represented some 16 percent of traffic to the site, second highest for the period, and were averaging a quarter-hour on the site, the highest for the same period, while browsing some 13 pages during each session. Algeria, Palestine, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia respectively rounded out the top IP visitors to the site during those months as well. While the Canadian IP visits were exceptionally high for an Arabic language site, they could also suggest that VPNs are widely used to access the site. Similarly, rounding out 10th on the list of visitors to the site was the United States, representing just slightly over 2 percent, or of site traffic for the three-month period, while averaging just under 5 minutes per session.

While search may have funnelled more than half of the visitors to Muslim News from November to January, another smaller number of users were sent to the site via social media platforms. Representing more than 2 percent of traffic to the site were users who linked to Muslim News through YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Vkontake and Instagram. In raw figures about 3,641 social media users landed on the site. YouTube supplied the most users to the site, with just over 1,200, followed by Twitter at 1,052, and then Facebook at 899. The Russian social network Vkontake represented another 9 percent of traffic, or just under 340, and Instagram about 113. The impact of social media referrals while not at all as significant as search, means links shared to Islamic State-affiliated sites are still peddled with some frequency on the three primary social media platforms globally.

Over the course of the same three months, researcher noticed three traffic peaks of note during that time period, each after announcements by anti-Islamic State coalition members. For instance, the largest peak to the site came on 27 November, after it had been widely reported that US troops had resumed Islamic State patrols in Syria. Then on 3 January, after it had been reported that NATO had suspended Islamic State operations in Iraq, and a rocket landed near the US Embassy in Iraq. The last peak on 14 January, came as King Abdallah of Jordan announced that Islamic State was regrouping in the Middle East and was on the rise. All three of these instances brought Islamic State briefly back into the news cycle as the world focused on what seemed to be an escalating conflict between the US and Iran.

What search, IP addresses, visit duration, social media referrals and usage peaks of Muslim News gives us is a more nuanced picture of where and how support bases for Islamic State access affiliated websites. It can help us determine where to effectively deploy alternative narratives, or launch disruption mechanisms to block integral platforms from seeding propaganda across the web. Most importantly, the tactics and strategies of Islamic State supporters go beyond simply seeding content on social media, but ultimately manipulating search to drive users to their sites. The most pertinent question now is how do we effectively plug gaps in search engines that are the driving force behind how we now collate and comprehend the world around us, when innocuous simple search terms are manipulated and algorithms are weaponized in the favour of extremist groups.