When it comes to tackling extremism and terrorism, one of the key challenges is the fast-changing nature of both, compounded by the speed of technological change. This can be seen with efforts to track online radicalisation, where the maintenance of up-to-date knowledge is daunting. The EU-funded Network of Excellence, VOX-Pol, set out to make research, analysis and debate surrounding extremism, terrorism and the internet available to a wide audience. The VOX-Pol researchers addressed a range of issues, from the online behaviours of convicted terrorists to the audience for alt-right content on Twitter. The network’s most recent publication presented the results of an online experiment about engaging with extremist material, finding that whilst interaction was fairly low, those who did engage tended to have a preference for hierarchy and dominance in society, stronger identification with the in-group, higher levels of radicalism, and out-group hostility. The VOX-Pol team also helped develop an archive of publicly available politically extreme Internet-based content.
Interdisciplinary and networked
A plethora of methods and tools were used by the VOX-Pol Network, ranging from traditional text analyses to large-scale data analytics, and from qualitative case studies to online experimentation. To give an example, one of VOX-Pol’s first publications addressed the role of YouTube in radicalising the extreme right. The research combined quantitative and qualitative analysis of around 1.6 million English- and German-language YouTube channels and found that users accessing right-wing extremist videos were very likely to be recommended further similar content, but unlikely to be presented with non-right-wing extremist content by YouTube. “Having a plurality of voices meant that contested issues, such as where the boundary lies between civil liberties and threats to the rule of law, were openly debated at events such as conferences and training academies,” says project coordinator Maura Conway from Dublin City University. These discussions were undertaken to introduce participants to the views and interests of others working on these topics and allowing different perspectives to be debated in an open and detailed manner.
Hard evidence for ‘real world’ impact
“The issues we addressed are clearly not just of academic interest, so we also involved professionals working in this area, including policy-makers, law enforcement, social media company representatives and civil society. Collectively we brought considerable hard evidence, experience and knowledge to the table,” says Conway. VOX-Pol’s research has been widely circulated within a variety of EU settings, and amongst Member States. In particular, the team has contributed to the European Internet Forum, producing an annual review of extremism and terrorism online for 2016, 2017 and 2018, and presented its findings at the European Internet Forum’s yearly ministerial gathering. The team also partnered with Europol’s Counter Terrorism Centre (ECTC), to develop their 2017 Training Academy, which was hosted at ECTC’s Hague HQ, and presented their research at the 2018 and 2019 ECTC terrorism conferences. Forthcoming specialist work of the VOX-Pol team includes research on the use of ‘big data’ approaches to study online extremism and terrorism, the contemporary Syrian jihadi online ecology, and a new report authored by a human rights lawyer, assessing legislation developed in response to terrorism-internet threats in a number of jurisdictions, including Germany, France, Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States.
VOX-Pol, violent, extremism, online, terrorism, security, threats, radicalisation, internet