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twitter heritage destruction

Promotion of heritage damage doesn’t change local opinion

Published on: 23 August 2018

Using Twitter to promote the damage to cultural sites is as likely to generate support for so-called Islamic State as it is to lead to negative reaction, researchers have found.

Heritage destruction

Experts at Newcastle University, UK, and the University of Milan, Italy, analysed 1.5 million Arabic-language tweets posted between August 2015 and June 2016 that specifically discussed ISIS and heritage destruction.

There were at least 121 reported instances of heritage damage in this period, of which 70 per cent were claimed by or attributed to ISIS. Not every event was claimed by ISIS, or publicised at all, but the researchers found that each time ISIS promoted an event it led to an increase of around 3,000 tweets.

Looking at the daily volume of tweets and whether a post expressed a positive, negative or neutral view, the research team found that activity significantly increased when ISIS publicised attacks on mosques and archaeological sites. Although negative sentiment was consistently present, the proportion of disapproving tweets only significantly increased when ISIS attacked cemeteries. 

The Great Theatre at Palmyra before it was destroyed

Informing strategies

Among the events that received the most coverage was the destruction of the ruins of Palmyra World Heritage site from May to October 2015. Although it received widespread attention in the Western and Arabic media and on social media, the destruction at Palmyra did not appear to diminish ISIS support on Twitter, the study showed.

Dr Emma Cunliffe, Research Associate, Newcastle University, said:

“The intentional targeting of heritage sites and timing the publicity of these events to coincide with religious festivals or military activities shows a deliberate attempt by ISIS to use social media to legitimise their agenda and control local audiences.

“The choice of which events ISIS publicise and the reaction on Twitter gives us subtle indications about how these actions are regarded by Arabic tweeters and could help inform strategies for tackling terrorism and heritage protection.”

Important indicator

The study showed that religiously motivations, such as disapproval of global and national heritage, were key in generating support for ISIS, but that over half of the negative feelings for ISIS were caused by dislike of the damage to both Islamic and archaeological sites.

Professor Luigi Curini, professor of political science, University of Milan,  added:

“The rise of so-called Islamic State saw a move towards the prolific use of social media to enlarge their network of support, promote their ideology and score propaganda wins.

“This study adds to the mounting evidence that online social networks are not ephemeral, spam-ridden sources of information. Rather, social media activity can provide an important indicator of strategic decision-making that could have relevant, and sometimes unfortunate, consequences.”

In October 2015, Newcastle University was invited to establish the first ever UNESCO Chair in Cultural Property Protection  and Peace. The Chairholder, Professor Peter Stone OBE, works closely with governments, NGOs and the International Blue Shield to foster collective reponsibility for the protection of global historic sites.


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