The VOX-Pol Network of Excellence (NoE) is a European Union Framework Programme 7 (FP7)-funded academic research network focused on researching the prevalence, contours, functions, and impacts of Violent Online Political Extremism and responses to it.
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 here to describe VOX-Pol’s interest, which is in those 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. 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, 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 and ultimately terrorism 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 Violent Online Political Extremism, its societal impacts, and responses to it. To this end, project partners combine complementary expertise from a range of disciplines (e.g. Communications, Computer Science, Criminology, Ethics, International Relations, Politics).
Cooperation and engagement with organisations outside of academia has been vital to ensure that VOX-Pol’s outputs have ‘real world’ impacts. VOX-Pol is a high-impact project, which reaches a diversity of those professionally tasked in the area of violent extremism, terrorism, and the Internet, including law enforcement agencies, policy-makers, and social media companies.
VOX-Pol: An Introduction
VOX-Pol’s purpose is establishment of a robust partnering, research, training, and dissemination network that has as its core function comprehensive research, analysis, debate, and critique of topics in and issues surrounding Violent Online Political Extremism.
Amongst its outcomes are:
- Creation and development of long-term relationships between established national research groups and new researchers and research groups;
- Creation of a sustainable critical mass of innovative research activity amongst what is currently a growing, but fragmented group of researchers and research topics;
- Harnessing and refinement of software tools generally employed in other domains to collect and analyse Violent Online Political Extremism content;
- Provision of training in tools, methods, and substantive issues relating to Violent Online Political Extremism to other researchers, including PhD students and early career researchers, and those professionally tasked with monitoring and/or responding to Violent Online Political Extremism, via conferences, summer schools, and workshops;
- Raised 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 practices of and responses to Violent Online Political Extremism;
- Outreach to diverse publics, via contributions to mass media, public lectures and other public events, free-to-access publications, etc., describing our research and its purposes;
- Influencing research agendas on the European and world stages in key aspects of Violent Online Political Extremism;
- Ensuring that EU and member states’ 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, and not untested assumptions, thus increasing such strategies and policies likelihood of success.