In the male-dominated world of ISIL, it may make sense to ignore the role of women in recruitment and spreading extremist propaganda.
But, according to a new study, this tendency to assume women play a minor role is wrong. While there are far more men operating in terrorist networks than women, researchers analyzing pro-ISIL users on social media suggest women are far more important.
Stefan Wuchty, lead researcher and associate professor at the University of Miami, describes women disseminating pro-ISIL content as "the glue that holds the network together."
In the study, published in Science Advances, Wuchty and a team researchers analyzed pro-ISIL content on VKontakte, a Russia-based social media site with over 360 million users. Whereas Twitter and Facebook shut down such content almost immediately, VKontakte does so more sporadically, making it more suitable for the research.
To find the data they were looking for, researchers searched through multiple hashtags to select relevant group pages that explicitly expressed support for the terrorist group by posting its propaganda. Once they found these pages, researchers were able to extract the individual members of these groups. In the end, they obtained information on nearly 42,000 individuals, about 40% of whom were women.
Researchers then mapped the social connections between these individuals, looking at their so-called "betweenness centrality." This is an indicator of how "central" an individual is in their social network. For example, if someone has 100 Facebook friends online and each of these friends is in different social circles, such as a sports club or a reading group, then that person's betweenness centrality is high because this one individual is connecting different groups of friends that would normally not interact with each other.
The study found that, on average, women had a higher betweenness centrality than men. So, why is this important?
"People with high between centrality are important for knowledge dissemination," Wuchty says. In short, women are playing a more central role in spreading extremist propaganda, bringing people together, and channeling funds.
And, this isn't necessarily restricted to the web. A yearlong investigation by Channel 4 revealed a secret cell of British Muslim women playing a particularly important role in recruiting others to join the so-called Islamic State through invite-only meetings in back rooms.
While the researchers admit the study has its limitations, as pro-ISIL content on Vkontakte isn't representative of the group's propaganda machine, they do hope their findings raise questions about the role of women in the development of an extremist network.