Laws of Physics Apparently Apply to Terrorist Attacks - Dispatch Weekly

June 18, 2016 - Reading time: 2 minutes

When it comes to analyzing terrorism, and terrorists and their activities, it seems algorithms involving laws of physics could come in handy as a researcher has shown that it is possible to track activities of terrorism groups like ISIS by applying algorithms.

Researchers at University of Miami carried out a study using VKontakte, the largest online social networking service in Europe. The reason why researchers selected VKontakte for their study is that pro-ISIS groups on VK are able to survive longer than on Facebook, which takes them down very quickly.

The researchers began their online search of pro-ISIS chatter manually, identifying specific social media hashtags, in multiple languages, which they used as “signals” to trace the more serious groups. The hashtags were tracked to the online groups, and the data was fed into a software system that mounted the search; the results were repeated until the chase led back to groups previously traced in the system.

Neil Johnson, a physicist in the College of Arts and Sciences, is known for his use of laws of physics to study the collective behavior of not only particles but people. Johnson and the team borrowed equations from chemistry and physics and using these equations, they were able to illustrate the fluctuation of online groups and pointed to possible predictions.

“The mathematics perfectly describes what we saw in real-time—how big and quickly these online groups grew and how quickly they were shut down by agencies or other monitoring groups,” Johnson said.

The researchers generalized a mathematical equation commonly used in physics and chemistry to understand the development and growth of ad hoc pro-ISIS groups and this led them to witness the daily interactions that drove online support for these groups, or “aggregates,” and how they coalesced and proliferated prior to the onset of real-world campaigns.

The researchers suggest that by concentrating just on these relatively few groups of serious followers—those that discuss operational details like routes for financing and avoiding drone strikes—cyber police and other anti-terrorist watchdogs could monitor their buildup and transitions and thwart the potential onset of a burst of violence.

Neil Johnson wrote about his research for The Conversation, an academic blog. Read his story, Disrupting Pro-ISIS Online ‘Ecosystems’ Could Help Thwart Real-World Terrorism.

DW Staff

David Lintott is the Editor-in-Chief, leading our team of talented freelance journalists. He specializes in covering culture, sport, and society. Originally from the decaying seaside town of Eastbourne, he attributes his insightful world-weariness to his roots in this unique setting.