While many violent extremists use private and deep web spaces, more and more are taking to mainstream public platforms - YouTube, Facebook, Twitter - to “inspire, radicalize and issue a ‘call to action’ to those vulnerable to extremist messaging and narratives.” The UK’s counter-terrorism Referral Unit identifies Facebook, Twitter, Blogger and BlogSpot as the most frequent hosts of referred material that glorifies terrorism.
Social media certainly amplifies the reach of violent extremist groups. A call to action can be heard by millions. On-line communities can serve as echo chambers. Graphic multimedia content – both real and fabricated - can justify grievances and reinforce prejudices. Narratives of in-group belonging can transcend geographic and individual isolation. Amongst researchers, there is an active hypothesis that “From right-wing to al-Qaeda inspired extremism, social media may ‘lower the bar’ for participation, making involvement of low-level, semi-radicalized or previously disengaged individuals a new feature of transnational extremist conversations and movements.” The Syrian foreign fighters phenomenon would seem to bear this out: Foreign fighters in Syria’s civil war are heavy users of social media. Many were active in social media prior to taking up arms; once in country, some re-engage actively with followers from their home country, to promote ISIL, answer questions and encourage.
And yet, the extent to which the internet and social media effect radicalization into violence is contested. This problem reflects the wider challenge of the preventing violent extremism (PVE) enterprise writ large, namely, problematic assumptions about the complex conditions that promote violent extremism. As one expert notes: “Violent extremism poses tremendous challenges for explanation, and thus, for response.”
Violent extremists do not fit a general profile. This is the one thing on which social science research concurs. There are key clusters of factors and processes on the road to radicalization, but the pathways are too varied and idiosyncratic to be generalizable, or to be used as a predictive model for early intervention. That being said, the literature also largely agrees that socialization into violence is an important factor. This is where the link to social media spaces and the need for social media research on online networks and content becomes clearer.
The potential and perils of social media analytics for PVE
As extremist groups colonize public online spaces, they leave behind digital footprints - information about who they are, what they do, what they say, how they connect and, importantly, their proximate and remote audiences. Some of this data could have significant potential for the prevention of violent extremism. But the terrain is complex.
Making effective use of this data for the purposes of public safety is awash in methodological and ethical challenges. Enormous data sets create a lot of noise. They can produce correlations that are neither causal nor accurate. Privacy considerations loom large. The Snowden disclosures have prompted a much-needed public debate around the trade-offs between privacy and public security. But concerns have also trickled over to the “open source” domain: where do public spaces begin and end? This question seems to be interpreted differently depending on who is doing the information collection, and for what purpose.
Research is in its infancy in terms of approaches, methods, techniques, legal frameworks, ethical considerations, as well as public opinion and the broader concerns of research by whom, on what, for whom. What constitutes truly “open” data? Who should be responsible and accountable for early detection? Who are the beneficiaries? When does support for enhancing the resilience of ‘at risk’ communities cross the line into profiling and targeting? What evidence do we have that interventions in that preventative, pre-criminal space actually have a positive effect? What are the consequences of action, and inaction?
This portal brings together some of the emerging research that attempts to engage different aspects of the challenge.
About The Government of Canada’s Kanishka Project
The Kanishka Project is a multi-year initiative funded by the Government of Canada to support terrorism-focused research. Unveiled on June 23, 2011, the project is named after the Air India Flight 182 that crashed on June 23, 1985, near the west coast of Ireland after a bomb planted on the aircraft exploded. The incident was the single largest loss of life to an terrorist attack in Canadian history killing 329 people, most of them Canadians.
The project invests in research to increase understanding of the recruitment methods and tactics of violent extremists, and to help produce more effective policies, tools and resources for law enforcement and people on the front lines. Although the project's primary focus is on research, it also supports other activities necessary to build knowledge and create a network of researchers and students that spans disciplines, universities, and research organizations.
The overarching goal of the Kanishka Project is to improve Canada's ability to counter terrorism and violent extremism at home and abroad.
For further information about the Government of Canada’s Kanisha research program, please visit:
About The SecDev Kanishka Project
The SecDev Kanishka Project – Detecting Weak Signs of Radicalization Online – was a 10-month set of practical experiments that explored certain promising open source social media (OSSM) techniques and methods for detecting violent extremist content and communities at risk online.
The project made important contributions to this aim, although its achievements were tempered by the nascent state of both methods and policy around OSSM analytics and the prevention of violent extremism (PVE) practice (in 2013).
We started with four basic assumptions:
Violent extremist groups are active and savvy users of social media spaces; •
While pathways to radicalization and violence are highly idiosyncratic, socialization plays an important role; therefore tracking and analyzing on-line ties and toxic content has potential utility;
Open-source social media (OSSM) analytics has the potential to generate information that could prove useful to improving public safety through the prevention of violent extremism;
Methods and techniques are in their infancy. Our work is exploratory. A main purpose is to raise questions and identify areas for further research.
The project was informed by the World Health Organization’s public health approach to armed violence prevention and reduction (AVR), which seeks to identify risk factors by analyzing diverse data sources that map the geographic and demographic incidence of armed violence Early on, the project team realized that the incidence of violent extremism was too low density to yield the types of information that has been usefully leveraged for AVR practice. However, the orientation of the approach – which focuses on identifying risk factors and protective factors, and is grounded in community-based approaches – merits further consideration for PVE practitioners.
In specific terms, the project’s open source research explored different techniques for identifying online networks that encourage violence, as well as toxic content and its audiences. The research yielded a range of findings, and surfaced numerous issues and challenges, including the lack of operational frameworks, indicators, case studies or collaborative end-users that could serve to frame and guide the research (at that time, in 2013). An important limiting factor was ethical considerations: the experimental demonstration of what might be possible to do with respect to surfacing information of interest from a public safety PVE point of view was strongly conditioned by concerns of what was prudent to explore, given growing public concerns around expectations of privacy, even with respect to decidedly public declarations on public online platforms.
Some of the project results are captured in the outputs listed below:
About The SecDev Foundation
The SecDev Foundation (SDF) is a Canadian-based think-do tank that works at the crossroads of security, development and new technologies. We believe that new technologies have the potential to empower people out of conflict, insecurity and oppression. Our mission is to understand how, and help that change happen.
We are an independent, not-for-profit organization that works with local stakeholders in countries and regions affected by conflict, insecurity and fragility in the Middle East, Eurasia, Asia, Latin America, and Africa. We use evidence-based research to extend and empower local knowledge and resilience.
The Foundation is supported by a wide range of partners in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of the Netherlands. We work in partnership with like-minded organizations including the Igarapé Institute (Rio), the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, Google Ideas, Open Societies Foundation, Freedom House, the Public International Law and Policy Group, and the International Development Research Centre, among others.