The 27th and 28th June saw the congregation of some of the world’s leading experts in counter-terrorism and 145 delegates from 15 countries embark on Swansea University’s Bay Campus for the Cyberterrorism Project’s Terrorism and Social Media conference (#TASMConf). Over the two days, 59 speakers presented their research into terrorists’ use of social media and responses to this phenomenon. The keynote speakers consisted of Sir John Scarlett (former head of MI6), Max Hill QC (the UK’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation), Dr Erin Marie Saltman (Facebook’s Policy Manager for counter-terrorism and counter-extremism in Europe, the Middle East and Africa), Professor Philip Bobbitt, Professor Maura Conway and Professor Bruce Hoffman. The conference oversaw a diverse range of disciplines including law, criminology, psychology, security studies, linguistics, and many more.
Proceedings kicked off with keynotes Professor Bruce Hoffman and Professor Maura Conway. Professor Hoffman discussed the threat from the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda (AQ). He discussed several issues, one of which was the quiet regrouping of AQ, stating that their presence in Syria should be seen as just as dangerous as and even more pernicious than IS. He concluded that the Internet is one of the main reasons why IS has been so successful, predicting that as communication technologies continue to evolve, so will terrorists use of social media and the nature of terrorism itself. Professor Conway followed with a presentation discussing the key challenges in researching online extremism and terrorism. She focused mainly on the importance of widening the groups we research (not just IS!), widening the platforms we research (not just Twitter!), widening the mediums we research (not just text!), and additionally discussed the many ethical challenges that we face in this field.
The key point from the first keynote session was to widen the research undertaken in this field and we think that the presenters at TASM were able to make a good start on this with research on different languages, different groups, different platforms, females, and children. Starting with different languages, Professor Haldun Yalcinkaya and Bedi Celik presented their research in which they adopted Berger and Morgan’s 2015 methodology on English speaking Daesh supporters on Twitter and applied this to Turkish speaking Daesh supporters on Twitter. They undertook this research while Twitter was undergoing major account suspensions which dramatically reduced their dataset. They compared their findings with Berger and Morgan’s study and a previous Turkish study, finding a significant decrease in the follower and followed counts, noting that the average followed count was even lower than the average Twitter user. They found that other average values followed a similar trend, suggesting that their dataset had less power on Twitter than previous findings, and that this could be interpreted as successful evidence of Twitter suspensions.
Next, we saw a focus away from the Middle East as Dr Pius Eromonsele Akhimien presented his research on Boko Haram and their social media war narratives. His research focused on linguistics from YouTube videos between 2014 when the Chobok girls were abducted until 2016 when some of the girls were released. Dr Akhimien emphasised the use of language as a weapon of war. His research revealed that Boko Haram displayed a lot of confidence in their language choice and reinforced this through the use of strong statements. They additionally used taunts to emphasise their control, for example, “yes I have your girls, what can you do?” Lastly, they used threats, and followed through with these offline.
Continuing the focus away from the Middle East, Dr Lella Nouri, Professor Nuria Lorenzo-Dus and Dr Matteo Di Cristofaro presented their inter-disciplinary research into the far-right’s Britain First (BF) and Reclaim Australia (RA). This research used corpus assisted discourse analysis (CADS) to analyse firstly why these groups are using social media and secondly, the ways in which these groups are achieving their use of social media. The datasets were collected from Twitter and Facebook using the social media analytic tool Blurrt. One of the key findings was that both groups clearly favoured the use of Facebook over Twitter, which is not seen to be the same in other forms of extremism. Also, both groups saliently used othering, with Muslims and immigrants found to be the primary targets. The othering technique was further analysed to find that RA tended to use a specific topic or incident to support their goals and promote their ideology, while BF tended to portray Muslims as paedophiles and groomers to support their goals and ideology.
The diversity continued as Dr Aunshul Rege examined the role of females who have committed hijrah on Twitter. The most interesting finding from Dr Rege’s research was the contradicting duality of the role of these women. Many of the women were complaining post-hijrah of the issues that pushed them into committing hijrah in the first place: loneliness, cultural alienation, language barriers, differential treatment, and freedom restrictions. They tweeted using the hashtag #nobodycaresaboutawidow and advised young women who were thinking of committing hijrah to bring Western home comforts with them, such as make-up.
Both Dr Weeda Mehran, and Amy-Louise Watkin and Sean Looney presented on children in terrorist organisations and their portrayal through videos and images. Dr Mehran analysed eight videos and found that children help to create a spectacle as they generate memorability, novelty, visibility and competitiveness, and display high levels of confidence while undertaking executions. On the other hand, Watkin and Looney found in their analysis of images in online jihadist magazines that there are notable differences between IS and AQ in their use of children with IS focusing on displaying brutality through images of child soldiers and AQ trying to create shame and guilt at their Western followers through images of children as victims of Western-back warfare. They concluded that these differences need to be taken into account when creating counter-messages and foreign policy.
Joe Whittaker presented his research on online radicalisation. He began with a literature review of the field, concluding that the academic consensus was that the Internet is a facilitator, rather than a driver, of radicalisation. He then offered five reasons as to why there was good reason to doubt this consensus: the lack of empirical data, how old the data is compared to the growth of the Internet, the few dissenting voices in the field, the changing online threat since 2014, and the wealth of information that can be learned from other academic fields (such as Internet studies and psychology). He then offered three case studies of individuals radicalised in the previous three years to learn whether the academic consensus still holds; finding that although it does in two cases, there may be good reason to believe that social media could drastically change the nature of some individuals’ radicalisation.
On the topic of corporate social responsibility in counter-terrorism, Chelsea Daymon and Sergei Boeke discussed different aspects of private entities engaging in policing extremist content on the Internet. Daymon drew upon the different projects and initiatives conducted by industry leaders, such as Google’s Jigsaw projects and the shared database between Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. She, however, warned against the excessive use of predictive technology for countering violent extremism, suggesting that it could raise practical and ethical problems in the future. Drawing from Lawrence Lessig’s models, Boeke outlined four distinct categories of regulation that can be applied to the Internet: legal, architectural, market-based, and altering social norms before offering different suggestions for how this can be used in the context of countering terrorism.
The final panel related to creating counter-narratives, which included Dr Paul Fitzpatrick, who discussed different models of radicalisation, and how it related to his work as Prevent Coordinator at Cardiff Metropolitan University. He began by critiquing a number of prevalent models including Moghaddam’s staircase, as well as all multi-stage, sequential models, observing that, having seen over one hundred cases first-hand, no-one had followed the stages in a linear fashion. He also highlighted the particular vulnerabilities of students coming to university, who have their traditional modes of thinking deliberately broken down, and are susceptible to many forms of extreme thinking. Sarah Carthy, who presented a meta-analysis of counter-narratives, followed Dr Fitzpatrick. She observed that specific narratives are particularly powerful because they are simple, present a singular version of a story, and are rational (but not necessarily reasonable). Importantly, Carthy noted that despite many assuming that counter-narratives can do little harm – the worst thing that can happen is that they are ignored – some were shown to have a detrimental effect on the target audience, raising important ethical considerations. The final member of the counter-narrative panel was Dr Haroro Ingram, who presented his strategic framework for countering terrorist propaganda. Ingram’s framework, which draws on findings from the field of behavioural economics, aims to disrupt the “linkages” between extremist groups’ “system of meaning”. Dr Ingram observes that the majority of IS propaganda leverages automatic, heuristic-based thinking, and encouraging more deliberative thinking when constructing a counter-narrative could yield positive results.
The last day of the conference saw keynote Max Hill QC argue that there is a strong place for counter-narratives to be put into place to discredit extremist narratives, and spoke of his experiences visiting British Muslims who have been affected by the recent UK terrorist attacks. He told of the powerful counter-narratives that these British Muslims hold and argued their importance in countering extremist propaganda both online and offline. Hill also argued against the criminalising of tech companies who ‘don’t do enough’, asking the question of how we measure ‘enough’? His presentation was shortly followed by Dr Erin Marie Saltman who discussed Facebook’s advancing efforts in countering terrorism and extremism. She argued that both automated techniques and human intervention are required to tackle this and minimise errors on the site that sees visits from 1.28 billion people daily. Saltman gave an overview of Facebook’s Violent Extremism Policies and spoke of the progress the organisation has made regarding identifying the ability of actors to make new accounts. Overall, Saltman made it crystal clear that Facebook are strongly dedicated to eradicating all forms of terrorism and violent extremism from their platform.
With the wealth of knowledge that was shared from the academics, practitioners and private sector companies that attended TASM, and the standard of research proposals that followed from the post-TASM research sandpit, it is clear that TASM was a success. The research presented made it very clear that online terrorism is a threat that affects society as a whole and the solutions will need to come from multiple directions, multiple disciplines, and multiple collaborations. You can find Max Hill QC’s TASM speech in full further down on the blog and follow us on Twitter @CTP_Swansea to find out when we will be releasing videos of TASM presentations.
Amy-Louise Watkin @CTP_ALW
Joe Whittaker @CTProject_JW