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Virtual Centre of Excellence for Research in Violent Online Political Extremism

Final Report Summary - VOX-POL (Virtual Centre of Excellence for Research in Violent Online Political Extremism)

Executive Summary:
VOX-Pol (Violent Online Political Extremism) is a 72-month , €5.13 million Network of Excellence that integrates the world’s leading researchers and research groups in Violent Online Political Extremism (VOPE), to include those researching the intersection of terrorism and the Internet (including, violent jihadists, violent separatists, etc.), the online activities of the extreme right, the potential for violent online radicalisation, and related topics, in order to:

1. Create a sustainable critical mass of innovative activity among what is currently a burgeoning but fragmented group of researchers and research topics; and
2. Ensure that EU and Member State strategies and policies targeting violent online political extremism are based on concrete evidence, experience, and knowledge about the contours and workings of violent online political extremism thus increasing the likelihood of their success.

VOX-Pol is led by Dublin City University (DCU) and has eight additional partner institutions: King’s College London (KCL), University of Oxford (UOXF), University of Amsterdam (UvA), Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), Central European University (CEU), Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy (IFSH) at the University of Hamburg, Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology—Delhi (IIITD), and University College London (UCL).

The VOX-Pol team is multidisciplinary, drawing on communications, computer science, criminology, ethics, international relations, and politics. Since the project’s kick-off in January 2014, VOX-Pol has been working to:

• Integrate and network the research activities of those working in the area of violent online extremism within the EU and globally;
• Create and develop long-term relationships between established national research groups, new researchers and research groups, security practitioners, the Internet industry, civil society, and policymakers;
• Produce new analytical tools and methodologies for research into the prevalence, contours, functions, and impacts of violent online political extremism;
• Raise awareness of the challenges of research and decision-making in this area by exploring the interplay of e-research ethics, privacy, surveillance, freedom of speech, and the practices of and responses to violent online extremism and terrorism; and
• Influence research agendas on the European and world stages in key aspects of violent online extremism and responses to it.
Project Context and Objectives:
The VOX-Pol vision is based on comprehensively researching, analysing, debating, and critiquing topics in and issues surrounding violent online political extremism (VOPE) with the objective of establishing a partnering, research, training, and dissemination network that will eventually lead to the creation of a Virtual Centre for Excellence in Violent Online Political Extremism.

What is meant by ‘violent online political extremism’? VOX-Pol’s interest is in exploring how violent extremist politics plays out ‘online,’ by which is generally meant the Internet. In terms of the type of politics being referred to, it is political activity situated at the outermost ends (i.e. the extremities) of any political spectrum. The centre of any such spectrum is generally held to be moderate; extremism may thus be conceived as the opposite, in either direction, of moderation. The problem with this approach however is that it is highly dependent on identification of the ‘centre’ (i.e. moderates), which in itself can be a highly subjective decision. The qualifier ‘violent’ is therefore employed herein to describe VOX-Pol’s interest, which is in individuals and groups that employ or advocate physical violence against other individuals and groups to forward their political objectives. The extremist nature of the politics in which VOX-Pol is interested is thus not decided upon by project participants, but by the decision of those involved in particular types of politics to advocate or employ violence to advance their goals.

Why not employ more common terms such as ‘terrorism’ or ‘radicalisation’? There is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes terrorism and, in fact, the concept of ‘terrorism’ is highly contested and viewed by many with suspicion.1 For VOX-Pol’s purposes it is agreed that all acts of terrorism are of an extremist nature, but not all violent extremism fits common definitions of terrorism. The discourse of ‘violent radicalisation,’ on the other hand, has come to be associated almost exclusively with jihadi terrorism,2 but may conceivably be extended to national-separatists, the far Right, the extreme Left, etc. Either way, the role of the Internet in processes of violent online radicalisation is a live issue and falls squarely within the remit of VOX-Pol.

The aim of the VOX-Pol Network of Excellence (NoE) is the comprehensive exploration of the many varieties of VOPE, its societal impacts, and responses to it. To this end, we combine complementary expertise from a range of participants in such a way that not only integrates existing software development and research activities, but also facilitates progress in our individual research areas, while at the same time reaching out to both new researchers in this area and all those with a professional interest in VOPE. The mechanism we use to achieve this is to have a central goal towards which the consortium strives and upon which the entire work programme is based. This goal is the establishment of a Virtual Centre of Excellence (VCE) in the area of VOPE that will spear-head and coalesce research activity in this field. All planned activities within VOX-Pol revolve around putting in place the necessary mechanisms, supports, and collaborations to ensure the establishment and long-term maintenance of the VCE.

VOX-Pol aims at stimulating joint research so that the European research community becomes a primary source of research and analysis into VOPE, with its own world class EU-based self-sustaining academic forum. The concrete realisation of this will be the establishment of the Virtual Centre of Excellence (VCE) that will provide mechanisms to assist integration of organisations, people, software, and research resources whilst facilitating new research, debate, and training on emergent issues. VOX-Pol’s Joint Programme on Integration and Sustainability and Joint Programme of Cooperative Research are built around this common goal. For the former, WP3 (Integration of Organisations and People), WP7 (Infrastructure Integration & Sharing) and WP8 (Outreach and Spreading Excellence) are designed to put in place the necessary pre-requisites for the establishment of a VCE, as well as developing the processes and mechanisms that will provide for continued access to VCE resources and running of VCE processes beyond the project’s lifetime. In the case of the latter, each work package is designed to stimulate inter-disciplinary research in one of three important areas of VOPE: the harnessing and application of information technology tools for exploring VOPE (WP4), the development of a roadmap for future research in violent online radicalisation (WP5), and the challenges of responding to VOPE (WP6).

VOX-Pol is perfectly aligned to the scope and objectives of the NoE instrument in other ways too.

Integration of Organisations and People:

VOX-Pol brings together the top European VOPE specialists and research teams, with international colleagues, to create lasting integration of the currently fragmented research efforts that individually address only aspects of VOX-Pol’s vision. The foundations for an enduring VCE will be laid by fostering the creation of sustainable and lasting relationships amongst existing national research groups and between these and end user partners. VOX- Pol’s Joint Programme on Integration and Sustainability constitutes the initiatives for driving integration and ensuring lasting impact.

Technical Integration:

VOX-Pol is founded upon a concrete technical project, in the form of the VOX-Pol Platform—an open and expandable framework for collaborative research on VOPE. The framework will be based on both a large repository of data and a common distributed system composed of flexible, modular, and interconnected technologies for accessing the repository. The purpose of VOX-Pol’s Joint Programme of Cooperative Research is to stimulate joint research effort, a key by-product of which will be the population of the VOX-Pol Platform with appropriate data, tools, and reports. The programme is designed to interlink clusters of complementary technologies and expertise that are required to address the VOX-Pol vision, but that to-date have independently co-existed with little crossover or cross-fertilisation of ideas. The integration will proceed first between VOX-Pol computer scientists (i.e. DCU, IIITD, TNO, UVA), from these to the whole of VOX-Pol, and from VOX-Pol to the wider research community.

Policy Relevance:

Cooperation and engagement with an assortment of interested parties outside of academia is vital to ensure that VOX-Pol research outputs have ‘real world’ impacts. To this end, an End User Group (EUG) has been established featuring an initial core of representatives from complementary sectors in order to provide multiple perspectives on VOX-Pol’s work. The membership of the EUG will be expanded over the lifetime of the project, its mission being to assist the Network in defining research directions and to provide advice on potential exploitation of research results as they emerge. The EUG provides a mechanism to ensure that research does not become unfocused and self-serving, but rather acts as a pipeline for future cutting-edge research projects, and thus has the greatest societal impact possible.

An Inclusive Forum for all Stakeholders:

At the heart of VOX-Pol is the vision of aggregating publicly available data sources to drive research into the practice of VOPE, its impacts, and potential responses to this relatively new but increasingly significant threat to societal security. VOPE is an area in which many issues, including impacts and responses, are hotly contested. It is thus crucial that VOX-Pol brings together researchers with policy makers, law enforcement, public bodies, non- governmental organisations, and all those that have a stake in this issue in order that all parties can be exposed to the positions of all others. It is important to note here that VOX-Pol’s interest is not in speaking with one voice or achieving consensus on VOPE, but ensuring instead that policy on VOPE and surrounding issues is based on sound research and extensive, in-depth, and informed discussion of all relevant issues. This should, in turn, ensure that responses to VOPE appropriately balance the security of citizens with, for example, their rights to privacy. For this reason too the EAC purposefully includes members, both individuals and institutions, which have very different approaches to and adopt widely different stances on VOPE and surrounding issues (e.g. privacy, surveillance, freedom of speech, etc.).

Training:

All of the above feed into a final major objective of VOX-Pol—the provision of dedicated training in the area of VOPE. This includes instruction in the history of terrorism and violent political extremism, the contemporary terrorism and violent political extremism landscape, the workings of VOPE, the use of software tools for detection of VOPE content, the use of software tools for analysis of VOPE content, the debate on the potential for violent online radicalisation, ethical concerns surrounding research and responses to VOPE, and a host of other topics. This instruction will take place not just within VOX-Pol’s dedicated Summer Schools (A3.4) and Training Academies (A8.6) but also via VOX-Pol participants’ cooperation in undergraduate and postgraduate education, and the development of teaching materials (A3.3) the VOX-Pol Conference Series (A8.2) and the series of workshops composing WP 5 and 6 and the publications arising out of these (A8.3). Periods of sustained and focused training are also provided via VOX-Pol’s Researcher Mobility Programme (A3.2).

Project Results:
Production of New Analytical Tools and Methodologies

The production of new analytical tools and methodologies for research into the prevalence, contours, functions, and impacts of online extremism and terrorism was a particularly innovative aspect of VOX-Pol. It required close cooperation between computer scientists and social scientists, both from within and outside the Network. Together we collected extensive data on a variety of extremists and terrorists—particularly the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (IS) and the extreme right—active in a wide variety of online spaces, including dedicated online discussion forums (e.g. Stormfront), Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter. We also developed and deployed tools for text analysis, image analysis, and social network analysis. Our mid-project and final conferences, along with our Summer Schools and Training Academies, all had sessions—many of them hands-on—devoted to our available data collection and analysis tools and their uses. In addition to a selection of technical papers produced by our computer science colleagues, published research produced by the Network that deployed tools and/or methods developed by us or in conjunction with us include ‘Down the (White) Rabbit Hole The Extreme Right and Online Recommender Systems’ (2014), Disrupting Daesh: Measuring Takedown of Online Terrorist Material and its Impacts (2017), ‘Echo Chambers Exist! (But They're Full of Opposing Views)’ (2020).
Potential Impact:
Integration and Networking

One of the project’s core aims was to integrate and network research activities and researchers, including PhD students and early career researchers (ECRs), working on the intersections of extremism, terrorism, and the Internet across disciplinary boundaries within the EU and globally. We took four major steps to make this happen: the holding of three Summer Schools aimed directly at PhD students and ECRs; the (co-)hosting of 3 conferences and 14 workshops, with a majority having an open call for papers; encouraging additional activity via our Researcher Mobility Programme, including not just our Researcher Fellowship Programme, but also shorter research trips (i.e. Researcher Exchange Programme); generating connections via social media, especially Twitter.

The week-long Summer Schools got excellent feedback, including in response to the question ‘What did you find most enjoyable [about the Summer School]?’: ““Socialising / networking / meeting peers in the field.” Our three conferences, in London, Dublin, and Amsterdam, each of which drew between 112 (2014) and 192 (2018) participants from around the world and grew the Network further, were acknowledged as being the standout events in the online terrorism research community in 2014, 2016, and 2018 respectively. In addition to our scheduled workshops, we also collaborated with colleagues we became familiar with through VOX-Pol to host other workshops, including a 2016 workshop in Brussels jointly hosted with the EU-funded projects INFOCORE and MeCoDEM, NATO-sponsored workshop in Dublin on ‘Terrorist use of the Internet: Assessment and Response’ and a 2018 ethics workshop at Swansea University.

Besides our official reports, the RMP and other activity and events resulted in 14 journal articles, 2 edited books, 1 report (for ICCT, The Hague), and a book chapter, with 2 journal special issues and 2 journal articles forthcoming. Connections made in our conferences and workshops doubtless also resulted in many other research collaborations and publications that have not been counted here.

Creation and Development of Relationships Between Academics and Non-academics

Another successful feature of VOX-Pol was the creation and development over the last 6 years of long-term relationships between both new and established researchers and research groups with security practitioners, the Internet industry, policymakers, and civil society. Our interactions with the latter took place most obviously during our two Training Academies and three Lunch Briefing Series, which were practitioner-focused, but also via our conferences and workshops and follow-up interactions, including a large number of briefings and presentations delivered at various groups’ headquarters.

Our 2015 Training Academy was hosted by the Valencia Local Police and had 22 attendees from eight countries, including from local and national law enforcement agencies, representatives of national ministries (e.g. Social Affairs, Justice and Security) and representatives of social media companies (e.g. Ask.fm) while our 2017 Training Academy was hosted by Europol at their Hague headquarters and, in addition to Europol staff, was attended by 28 participants from nine countries, including local and national law enforcement agencies, representatives from international and European institutions (e.g. Council of Europe, European Commission, International Criminal Court), and social media companies (e.g. Facebook). While our first Lunch Briefing Series, hosted by ICSR at King’s College London had practitioner involvement, it was dominated by students and researchers. Our 2018 and 2019 Briefing Series, on the other hand, were organised jointly with the Representation of the European Commission in Belgium, took place at the Brussels Press Club, and drew a largely practitioner audience, including from the European Commission, law enforcement, public policy, NGOs, news media, and social media companies. Our conferences and workshops also drew significant practitioner interest, with our Amsterdam conference drawing representatives of social media companies such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter; representatives from government departments and law enforcement in Europe and North America; as well as think tanks and policy research institutes. These interactions resulted in the building of closer relationships between those involved in our Network and all types of practitioners, as evidenced by the large number of briefings and presentations undertaken by VOX-Pol partners in the wake of these events, including at the Australian Attorney General’s Office, Europol, Facebook, Google, Interpol, the Irish Department of Justice, the London Metropolitan Police, Twitter, the UK Home Office, and YouTube.

Our open access VOX-Pol reports and our other publications have also been widely utilised by law enforcement agents, social media company representatives, and policymakers. Our 3 Year in Review reports were, for example, circulated to all attendees at the annual EU Internet Forum ministerial-level meetings, while our Disrupting Daesh report was quoted from by Facebook’s Counterterrorism Policy Manager in an interview.

Dissemination and Outreach

Both our work creating and developing relationships between academics and security practitioners, the Internet industry, policymakers, and civil society and our integration and networking activity was heavily aided by our online presence.

In March 2014, VOX-Pol launched a website (www.voxpol.eu) to disseminate information about the Network and its activities, and provide visitors access to resources related to the field. In October 2014, a weekly Blog was added to the site, to which over 249 (cross-)posts were made by graduate students, faculty, independent, and other researchers in Periods 2, 3 and 4. The Blog has become one of the most popular features on the website, with total views of all Blog posts reaching just under 40,000.

In December 2015, VOX-Pol’s Online Library went live as a component of the site, providing visitors with an easily accessible and searchable collection of currently just under 1,000 publications related to online extremism and terrorism, with new items added all the time. Entries include journal articles, book chapters, reports, and theses. In addition, the VOX-Pol YouTube channel hosts a collection of 125 videos related to research on violent online political extremism and terrorism, including videos of the live streams from many of our events, such as conference keynotes and lunch briefings, which have collectively been viewed over 33,262 times. VOX-Pol also has a strong Twitter presence, with over 4,600 followers.

The number of individuals accessing VOX-Pol publications runs into the tens of thousands. Our 14 official VOX-Pol reports have together reached 57,959 downloads directly from our website; many are also available on other websites. A further 3,200 printed versions of our reports were distributed at various events (e.g. SRE 2018 and 2019). More than—very conservatively—61,000 VOX-Pol reports were disseminated over the lifetime of the project. This resulted in our research garnering 466 academic citations to-date and coverage of our work in a large number of traditional media outlets, including The Atlantic, BBC, The Guardian, HuffPost, NBC News, Newsweek, The New York Times, Vice, The Washington Post, and Wired.

By the end of the project, 31 December 2019, the VOX-Pol website had 109,553 unique users from 181 countries, who had accessed VOX-Pol’s website over 128,225 times for over 262,800 page views.

Raise Awareness of the Challenges of Research and Decision-making in the Area

We worked assiduously over the years to raise awareness of the challenges of research and decision-making in this area by exploring the interplay of e-research ethics, privacy, surveillance, freedom of speech, and the practices of and responses to online extremism and terrorism.

As regards privacy, surveillance, and freedom of speech, we engaged civil society organisations active in this space in our workshops, Summer Schools, and Training Academies. Groups that we heard from at these events included the Center for Democracy and Technology, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), European Digital Rights (EDRi), and Global Voices. With respect to research, our second official report, Check the Web: Assessing the Ethics and Politics of Policing the Internet for Extremist Material (2015), explored the types of monitoring and blocking then being undertaken by government agencies and the private sector. We followed up in 2017 with a workshop on ‘Countering Violent Extremism Online and the Impact on Civil Liberties,’ which was co-hosted by the Berkman Klein Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard University and took place at Harvard Law School. We have also cross-posted Blog entries by a variety of organisations championing freedom of speech online, including multiple posts by the EFF and Open Rights Group.

At the macro level, we made an ethical commitment from the outset not just to focus on IS and violent jihadi online activity, but to pay attention to other varieties of extremism and terrorism, including particularly the extreme right. This included ground-breaking work on YouTube’s recommender system’s role in extreme right radicalisation processes and equal attention to IS and extreme right online activity in our annual Year in Review reports, during a period when very little attention was being paid to any other than IS’s online activity.

Having said all this, the majority of effort under this heading went into our work on the practical ethics-related issues arising on a day-to-day basis for online extremism and terrorism researchers. In terms of events, this included a co-hosted—with Swansea University—workshop on ‘Ethics in Online Terrorism Research’ in April 2018; a post-conference ethics workshop following our August 2018 Amsterdam conference; and a very well received session on ethics at our 2019 Summer School. We have also published a report entitled Reconciling Impact and Ethics: An Ethnography of Research in Violent Online Political Extremism (2019) and are contributing an article entitled ‘Researching Online Violent Extremism and Terrorism: Ethics Issues’ to a forthcoming special issue of Terrorism and Political Violence. VOX-Pol is also a part of the TASM-sponsored REASSURE project, which is focused on the welfare of online extremism and terrorism researchers. A ‘Researcher Resources’ page of our website has recently been launched, which contains links to resources on internet research ethics and researcher well-being.

Influence Research and Policy Agendas

Since its establishment, VOX-Pol has played a crucial role in shaping the research agenda in our field. We have produced influential research on a variety of topics that was then built upon by others; these include the role of YouTube’s recommender system in online radicalisation processes, live streaming of terrorism, the role of gender in online extremism and terrorism, disruption by major social media companies of terrorist activity on their platforms, the shape of the contemporary online alt-right, and experimentation in online radicalisation research. Our Coordinator, Prof. Maura Conway’s, VOX-Pol-funded article ‘Determining the Role of the Internet in Violent Extremism and Terrorism: Six Suggestions for Progressing Research’ (2016) is not only Studies in Conflict & Terrorism’s fourth most read article ever, but has been very influential in our field in terms of others seeking to follow her ‘six suggestions.’

VOX-Pol has played an important role in the European policy agenda in our area via, most obviously, our participation in the EU Internet Forum (EUIF). We were engaged with the EUIF, the EU’s flagship process for dealing with hate and terrorism online, almost from its establishment in December 2015. We were invited to prepare a report on Violent Extremism and Terrorism Online: The Year in Review for 2016, 2017, and 2018, which were circulated to member state, Internet company, and other representatives at the EUIF’s annual ministerial-level plenary, which our Coordinator also attended and delivered prepared remarks at. Discussions at the EUIF fed directly into the EU’s Directive on Combating Terrorism Content Online. We also worked closely with DG Home on other EUIF-related issues, including European extreme right online activity and the Civil Society Empowerment Programme (CSEP). As regards the global policy stage, VOX-Pol’s research has been consumed by policymakers from countries worldwide. Representatives from government departments from countries globally have also attended at our events, including the Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security, and the US State Department. Other transnational bodies that we have engaged with include the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, the UN Security Council Counter-terrorism Committee (UNCTED), and Tech Against Terrorism, of which we are a board member.

Overall Project Summing-up and Next Steps

Over the course of the last six years we engaged, whether face-to-face or via the Internet, with thousands of researchers, policymakers, security practitioners, Internet companies, civil society groups, and others from around the world. Our research appeared as books, book chapters, journal articles, reports, Blog posts, and podcasts. It was widely cited by colleagues and was referred to in a diverse array of major media out lets. By the formal end of project funding, VOX-Pol had become recognised as a world leading ‘centre’ for the study of online extremism and terrorism. It is hoped that the completion of our EU funding cycle will not result in the end of VOX-Pol. We are currently in discussion with UK colleagues to ensure its continuance; we envisage putting this transfer of leadership on a more formal footing by September 2020.

List of Websites:
www.voxpol.eu
https://twitter.com/VOX_Pol