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Kiev, Ukraine - March 06, 2016: A man using Twitter app on Apple iPhone 6. Twitter is an online social networking service that enables users to send and read short messages called "tweets." (Credit: mama_mia/Shutterstock.com)

The missives were tapped out onto Twitter from all the corners of the world, even as the victims still lay dying on the sidewalk in Nice, France, on Bastille Day two years ago.

“Our prophet ordered to be strong against infidels, to defend ummah, muslims, khilafa, warned against bid’ah…” tweeted one user.

“You hypocrites never made a single hashtag when markets were bombed in Syria killing 100s,” wrote another.

“Why is everyone freaking out all of a sudden?” tweeted a third, among the thousands. “People die everyday in Syria, it’s not that big deal (sic) ha? I’m done with your selective humanity.”

The trove of messages in the seconds, minutes and hours after blood is spilled in a terror attack is part of the work of Karyn Sporer, a sociologist at the University of Maine.

She dissects the data in the 24-hour aftermath of such terror attacks as those in Nice, the attack on the Pulse nightclub just the month before, as well as the Paris coordinated terrorist attacks the year before.

What she has found is that many of the Twitter trolls extolling the horror of mass violence show distinct patterns, and are similar to how common criminals justify their actions, according to basic criminology theory.

Sociologist Karyn Sporer dissects Twitter data in the 24-hour aftermath of terror attacks such as those in Nice and Paris, France. (Photo: Courtesy of the University of Maine)

Religious fervor and holy justifications are actually not the main driver—instead it is the accounts pointing out what they perceive to be hypocrisy and inconsistent attributions of the levels of violence, like shown in the Nice attack, that are seen most often, Sporer said.

“This appeal to hypocrisy is very prevalent,” she told Forensic Magazine in an interview last month. “The hashtag social movements—anything like Pray for Paris, or I Am Paris, Not in My Name … That seems to be infuriating to a lot of these sympathizers. It’s not necessarily members of the Islamic State, but people who support what they’re doing.”

The project, still a work in progress, started with 4,300 tweets—about 1,200 for each of the three attacks (Orlando had about 1,800).

Sporer coded the tweets for their content by hand, and then used Excel and other software. She cut out the news accounts and retweets, and other missives unrelated to her purpose. She focused in on those who were supporting the unfolding carnage, over the first 24 hours as the smoke cleared.

What she found is an example of ad hominem arguments, or what has been referred to recently as “whataboutism,” that deflects the actual import of the breaking news—and instead invokes other unrelated incidents, often halfway across the world.

“Last month 200+ ppl’ve (sic) been killed 80 drone-air strikes in Afghanistan,” tweeted one user as the Paris attacks on Nov. 13, 2015. “I wish they would get at least 1% attention (sic) of the Paris victims.”

“When you have never heard someone showed concerned (sic) about Syria and Iraq then suddenly post #PrayforParis lol,” wrote another.

The grammar, like pretty much all of Twitter, is chaotic. Much tagging is going on—both between the sympathizers and those moderate Muslims who are publicly inveighing against the newsfeeds.

“It’s the in group-out group dynamics of society. We always want to find an ‘other,’” she said. “That way, we can take away their humanity, and kill them. That’s humanity in a nutshell—and you can see those social forces online, and in real time through these tweets.”

But it’s a kind of 21st-century mob bloodlust—even at a distance.

“It kind of reminds me of Shark Week—when they’ll show you video of them dumping a bunch of fish blood in the ocean, and you see all these sharks eating and pulling, and whatever,” said Sporer. “It’s chaos—and there’s definitely trolling going on.

“It’s just the internet in general,” Sporer added. “The internet has inadvertently aided all sorts of deviant organizations, because of anonymity, limited regulation, rapid flow of information; at a click of a button you have a worldwide audience.”

Sporer is also currently working on a bigger, more in-depth look into the tweets following four attacks: the Orlando and Paris massacres, but also two 2015 attacks, the mass shooting at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper, and the San Bernardino terror attack. 

The research could be used to counter the jihadist information campaigns, Sporer said. While the Islamic State is militarily on the ropes currently, according to news accounts, they have proven how effective extremist messaging can be to recruit the impressionable through the internet. 

The work doesn’t focus on who is sending the message—or from where. But it’s the message that truly matter, she said.

“If we’re worried about the recruitment and radicalization of Westerners, it doesn’t matter who’s tweeting this,” said Sporer. “All that matter is the message, and who’s reading it—who’s going to take that in, and make it part of their own identity.”

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