By Pamela Ligouri Bunker and Robert J. Bunker
The 2019 Terrorism and Social Media (TASM) Conference took place on 25 and 26 June 2019 at Swansea University Bay Campus, Wales, United Kingdom. The conference was organised by Swansea University’s Hillary Rodham Clinton School of Law and its Cyber Threats Research Centre (CYTREC), with the support of the VOX-Pol Network of Excellence. It brought together a broad range of researchers, policy-makers, and practitioners from a total of 23 countries, including the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia, Ireland, France, Holland, Poland, Israel, and Ukraine. It featured three keynote presentations and hosted twenty-five panels with more than seventy-four other speakers over six breakout session sequences each lasting one and one-half hours over the two-day event. The conference utilised the Twitterhashtag: #TASMConf for tweets related to its activities. A selection of these tweets can be viewed here.
Keynotes were provided via the a conversation with the Global Internet Forum to CounterTerrorism (GIFCT) panel (Dr. William McCants—Google, Dr. Erin Marie Saltman—Facebook, and Adam Hadley—Tech Against Terrorism) along with traditional presentations provided by VOX-Pol Research Fellow J.M. Berger, author of Extremism (The MIT Press, 2018), and Dr. Krisztina Huszti-Orban, adjunct professor of law and research fellow at the Human Rights Center of the University of Minnesota.
An after dinner speech by Lord Alexander Carlile, former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation for the UK from 2001-2011, was also provided. Additional special elements of the conference were a pre-conference event “Advancing Collaborative Research and Understanding of Online Counterterrorism: An Evening with Facebook” and the post-conference “TASM Sandpit: An opportunity to form a team and secure funding for a research project,” supported by Swansea University’s CHERISH-Digital Economy Centre and Facebook.
Given that this is an emergent field of social media based academic study, the conference primarily addressed the radical right’s use of social media for extremist and terrorism related purposes along with current domestic Western responses through its inclusion in the general panels by topical area, as opposed to the more numerous radical Islamist social media focused panels. Still, evidencing its increased recognition by scholars as a vital area for study, a solely radical right focused panel—Understanding the Radical Right—also took place at this event.
Extremist and terrorist groups addressed in the above panels include: Alt-right groups, Australian radical right groups, Britain First, British National Party (BNP), Canadian radical right groups, Counter-Jihad (Movement), Eco-fascists, English Defence League (EDL), Neo-Nazis (US-based), New Zealand radical right groups, Sovereign citizens (US-based), and UK radical right groups. The radical right focused presentations delivered at the conference – along with the presenter(s) name (affiliation), their TwitterID, and presentation abstract – (per the attendee overview of breakout sessions/abstract listing) are as follows:
- Sovereign but Not Alone: An Examination of Competition and Cooperation Among American Sovereign Citizens Online
Matthew M. Sweeney (University of Massachusetts Lowell) @MMSweeney1109;
The Sovereign Citizen Movement has emerged as a preeminent threat to law enforcement officers and members of the general public in the United States. From 2000 to 2017, Sovereign Citizens were responsible for the deaths of 21 law enforcement officers and 37 civilians, and for the injuries of 25 officers and 50 civilians. Due to the disconnected nature of such a movement, online platforms have become essential to the spread of its’ ideas. However, even with the violence associated with them, empirical and primary source research is almost nonexistent. This study will examine the online interactions between Sovereign Citizen websites, paying attention to the level to which Sovereigns cooperate or compete with one another. The question this work will answer is, do Sovereign Citizen websites compete or cooperate with one another? Also, how does this competition or cooperation impact tactical choice and ideological cohesion? The data for this study is a sample of over 70 American Sovereign websites identified through a two-step process; open source keyword-based searches and hyperlink connections between websites. This work hypothesizes that competition between websites will result in greater tactical diversity and lower ideological cohesion.
- Blame Game: Responses to Militant Jihadist Terrorism in the Extreme Right Digital Milieu
Benjamin Lee (Lancaster University) @nebulon82;
There is a well-established assumption in terrorism studies that violence by militant jihadists ‘feeds’ the extreme right. However, empirical evidence suggests that the reality of any connections between different forms of extremism is nuanced and dynamic. This paper attempts to better understand how extreme right web spaces react to militant jihadist terrorism using a granular qualitative study of posts made in three extreme right web spaces in the aftermath of three terrorist attacks by militant jihadists in the UK in 2017. The results show common themes between ideologically distinct web spaces. The assignation of blame, identification with victims, and the proposed solutions, all suggest that within the extreme right milieu terrorist violence is interpreted in the light of pre-existing worldviews rather than as a stimulus for new ideas. This work furthers understanding of reciprocal radicalisation and highlights the importance of the transnational extreme right as it exists digitally, a space conceptualised in this paper as the extreme right digital milieu.
- Affect and Online Extremism: Reflections from the UK’s Radical Right
Elizabeth Pearson (Swansea University) @lizzypearson;
Much attention is paid by both policy-makers and academics to the ways in which the internet is important to radicalisation. Most research has focused on online ‘Jihadist’ extremism, engaging an ‘outside-in’ analysis of the text, pictures and links shared by extremists, and exploring the organisational approach of groups. How ‘extreme’ members of radical networks describe, understand and reflect on this material is less well explored. This article turns to the British radical right scene, and illustrates the ways in which people active in the EDL, Britain First and the counter-Jihad, understand their online activity. It is based on semi-structured interviews carried out between May 2016 and February 2018, with both male and female participants, leaders and grassroots activists who combat what they believe is the Islamisation of the UK, Europe and the West. The paper explores: participants’ affective engagement with social media communities; the mechanisms of online activity; and the tensions apparent in online participation. It suggests the increasingly false dichotomy of online versus offline approaches to radicalisation, and reveals the ways in gender and affect factor in participation in this ‘extreme’ community.
- Boots on the Ground? Online and Offline Identities of the Extreme Right
Bradley J. Galloway (University of the Fraser Valley), Ryan Scrivens (Concordia University), Barbara Perry (University of Ontario Institute of Technology), Garth Davies (Simon Fraser University) and Richard Frank (Simon Fraser University) @bjgalloway1717 & @R_Scrivens;
Right-wing extremists, amongst other extremists, continue to exploit the power of the Internet by connecting with like-minded others from around the globe and developing a sense of identity both on- and offline. A growing body of literature has been dedicated to exploring this phenomenon, with an interest in how the on- and offline identities of these adherents overlap. Overlooked in these discussions, however, has been an insider’s perspective of how adherents’ online identities emerge in the offline realm. Drawing from the insights of a former right-wing extremist who was an online recruiter for over 10 years, paired with an open-source analysis of the content found in a popular online space of the extreme right, we explore how the on- and offline identities of right-wing extremists connect by differentiating between those who are violent and non-violent extremists. The findings reveal that, while both factions share similar ideological beliefs and a victim mentality, each camp uses distinct strategies to mobilize the movement both on- and offline – tactics that are largely dictated by gurus in the sample.
- ‘Uncle Ted Did Nothing Wrong’: Discourse Analysis of Anarcho-Primitivist, Eco-Fascist, and Neo- Luddite Twitter
Brian T. Hughes (American University) @mrbrianhughes;
As the threat of ecological collapse looms ever-larger, and crises of social dislocation and cultural instability continue to proliferate, the face of eco-extremism is changing. Environmental radicalism—a largely leftwing movement during the 1990s and 2000s—has taken an increasing turn away from its onetime association with the politics of liberation. In its place, misanthropy, anti-egalitarianism, and even racist mysticism are coming to define the moral and ideological core of certain eco-extremists. This range reflects a spectrum of ideological tendencies which do not easily conform to existing operational definitions of left- and right-wing. So-called “pine-tree twitter” (named for the pine tree emojis often incorporated into user profiles) is a publicly-accessible space in which these new eco- extremists express themselves. This paper presents an overview of the rhetorical habits, ideological postures, and moral concerns of these emerging extremist groups. In doing so, it hopes to contribute to a developing groundwork for the study of this potentially significant new vector of extremism.
- Researching Cryptocurrencies as a Source of Funding for Extremist Activities Online
Lorand Bodo (Tech Against Terrorism) and Benjamin Strick (OSINT analyst) @LorandBodo & @BenDoBrown;
A vast majority of the literature on terrorism financing focuses on large terrorist organisations. Less attention has been given to extremist groups, particularly right-wing extremist entities. Even less is known about how these entities utilise cryptocurrencies to finance their activities. To this end, this study seeks to explore the role of cryptocurrencies in extremist financing to gain a more nuanced understanding of its appeal to right-wing extremist groups, as well as shedding light on the finance mechanisms used, to identify potential disruption-points. The ultimate goal is to develop a robust methodology for researching cryptocurrency-based finance activities employed by extremist entities online and to identify strategies to trace and find sources with start and end points of cryptocurrency financing. To do so, the Daily Stormer is used as a case study, in which various OSINT tools and techniques are employed and evaluated in terms of suitability. This project will cover the surface, deep and dark web to uncover as much as possible of Daily Stormer’s cryptocurrency-based finance operations. To our best knowledge, this is the first study that explores cryptocurrencies as a source of funding for right-wing extremist entities and how these finance operations could be countered.
- Feminism is Killing Western Civilization: ‘Manosphere’ Logics and Far/Alt-Right Recruiting on YouTube
Ashley A. Mattheis (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill); @aamattheis;
This paper discusses the Far/Alt-Right use of “Manosphere” logics – ideology drawn from Men’s Rights, Pick Up Artist, and Men Going Their Own Way online communities – in YouTube videos to mobilize their radicalization efforts specifically through constructions of gender. Here fears of white men losing control over white women’s sexuality becomes the basis for promoting white nationalist extremism. These videos specifically leverage the misogynist and anti-feminist logics of the Manosphere to argue that the “real” threat to white men is immigration, globalization, and “Islamic” hatred of the West. Links between feminism and the “Islamic” threat are made through depictions of miscegenation – by choice or through violence – as an outcome of multiculturalism. Importantly, these videos use “flip board” imagery mimicking educational videos which pose extremist rhetoric as “truth” and “fact.” I argue this format is persuasive to participants in Manosphere communities for two primary reasons. First, the videos’ visual format generates a neutralized and seemingly fact- driven visual narrative. And second, because Manosphere and Far/Alt-Right ideologies share a gendered worldview. Ultimately, the Manosphere offers a useful site of radicalization for the Far/Alt- Right which can be seen in the increasing racialization of misogyny in Manosphere blogs.
- Gabs of Hate: Exploring Alternative Platforms of Hate on Social Media
Amarnath Amarasingam (Institute for Strategic Dialogue), Derek Silva (Western University), Ryan Scrivens (Concordia University) and Jade Hutchinson (Macquarie University)
@AmarAmarasingam, @Derekcrim, @R_Scrivens & @JadeHutch00
Much research has focused on the presence and uptake of hate rhetoric in popular online spaces such as Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram. Much less discussed, however, is how online hate rhetoric is constructed, used, and disseminated throughout and across new, less well-known, social media platforms such as the Gab network. Gab is an alternative to Twitter that was explicitly founded on notions of free speech where users are able to read and write messages of up to 300 characters, referred to as “gabs.” Many high-profile right-wing commentators and extremists have taken to Gab, including former Breitbard writer Milo Yiannopolous and Richard Spencer. Indeed, Gab has been described in the popular press as the “Twitter for racists” and a “safe haven” for white nationalists. Drawing on a sample of Gabs that were hosted by the Gab network in Canada, the US, UK, and Australia, we explore the ideological and geographical landscape and presence of extreme-white rhetoric online, critically evaluating the presence and uptake of hate speech, the use of violent rhetoric online, and the similarities and differences of online content between Gab and other social media platforms. Our findings suggest that despite some notable similarities in hate speech on Gab and other, more traditional, social media platforms, the network offers us key insights into how the right mobilizes quickly and promulgates hate speech in emergent online spaces. Appreciating both similarities between Gab and other platforms, as well as key distinctions, will tell us much about groups in these countries adopt new platforms and platform strategies in order to give some insight into craft interventions to counter them.
- Following the whack-a-mole: Britain First’s visual strategy from Facebook to Gab
Lella Nouri (Swansea University), Nuria Lorenzo-Dus (Swansea University) and Amy-Louise Watkin (Swansea University); @ctproject_lella, N/A & @ctproject_ALW;
The old adage claims that as soon as something is removed from the internet it pops up somewhere else. On 14 March 2018, Facebook banned Britain First from its platform, reasoning that they had “repeatedly posted content designed to incite animosity and hatred against minority groups” (Guardian, 2018). Subsequent to their removal, they created an official Britain First Gab page in May 2018. So, why have Britain First decided to migrate and post on another open platform? The obvious answer can be linked to the successes the group reaped on Facebook, which are not to be overlooked. However, they lost these followers, due to their removal and ban, so they obviously had a desire to recreate that follower community elsewhere. The key question therefore is: Why Gab? Gab does seem like a smart choice considering their removal from other more mainstream sites such as Twitter (December 2017). Moreover, Gab is more lenient than Facebook or Twitter, with its ethos centred on promoting free-speech and privacy and fighting against censorship. This raises some questions, though: Could Britain First’s use of Gab become as prolific as that of Facebook? What effect may their communicative tactics have in terms of followers’ reactions? Would their simple ‘like’ and ‘share’ strategy with Facebook posts such as “share if you love England” or “like if you are against animal cruelty” achieve the same results on Gab? In particular, this study explores the effect that Facebook’s removal of their official page has had on their visual communication strategy, specifically their choice of images. Our study examines (i) trends in terms of the types of images used and which ones were most successful on Facebook and; (ii) if, and if so, how their use of images has changed with the move to Gab
- Infinite (8)Chan: Analysing Far-Right Extremist Responses to the Christchurch Attacks
Suraj Lakhani (University of Sussex), Maura Conway (Dublin City University) and Susann Wiedlitzka (University of Sussex); @surajlakhani, @galwaygrrl & N/A;
The live-streamed attacks by Brenton Tarrant in March 2019, in two Christchurch mosques, left 50 dead and many injured. Although Tarrant’s video has largely been removed from major social media platforms, the material is openly viewed and shared on other publicly available online spaces. One of these is 8Chan (or Infinite Chan), a website that allows anyone to create their own anonymous multi-content ‘imageboards’. In fact, shortly before the mass shootings, Tarrant posted a live-stream Facebook link on 8chan. The space was also used to spread and praise Tarrant’s manifesto. However, to date, little research has been undertaken on the platform. This paper will discuss key findings from an exploratory piece of research on 8Chan, undertaken in the aftermath of the New Zealand attacks. Preliminary research findings have indicated the presence of online ‘communities of support’ for Tarrant’s actions, which could, hypothetically, be used as part of narratives for future acts of violent extremism. The research also demonstrated the existence of subcultural threads, whereby, similar to arguments on jihadi-cool, there are various existential attractions towards involvement with far-right extremism. Finally, the findings indicate that rather than displaying sympathy towards the victims of the attacks, certain posters victimised the victims.
- Understanding linguistic trajectories of YouTube’s alt-right
Isabelle van der Vegt (UCL), Maximilian Mozes (UCL), Paul Gill (UCL) and Bennett Kleinberg (UCL); @isabellevdv, @maximilianmozes, @paulgill_ucl & @benkleinberg;
In recent years, alt-right movements have significantly grown online. Simultaneously, the world has been faced with terror attacks motivated by white supremacist ideologies. Online, these ideologies are widespread; YouTube has been referred to as a breeding ground for the alt-right. Reports have shown YouTube is rife with alternative “influencers”, who behave not much differently than other popular YouTubers, besides the dangerous ideas they spread and the violent acts they potentially inspire. This study utilises a dataset of almost 60,000 YouTube video transcripts, extracted from known alt-right and left-progressive channels. We uniquely examine alt-right language use on a large scale and compare it to language use on more mainstream channels. A fully automated analysis of the video transcripts is performed to understand the linguistic trajectories throughout the videos and the potential differences between the two groups. We are interested in whether certain exogenous events have an effect on the linguistic trajectories in both groups. We investigate whether the deadly violence in Charlottesville (August 2017) is accompanied by differential linguistic patterns in alt-right and progressive videos. By doing so, we hope to gain a deeper understanding of the online alt-right community and potentially aid in finding ways to combat their dangerous message.
- Identifying trajectories of Islamophobia amongst followers of the BNP on Twitter
Bertie Vidgen (Alan Turing Institute & University of Oxford), Taha Yasseri (Alan Turing Institute & University of Oxford), Helen Margetts (Alan Turing Institute & University of Oxford); @bertievidgen, @TahaYasseri & @HelenMargetts;
This paper examines Islamophobic hate speech amongst all Twitter followers of the BNP, a UK far right policy party (after cleaning, n = 6,406), over one year (2017-2018). We label the content of all their tweets (n = 5.51 million) using an Islamophobia detection classifier which distinguishes between ‘Weak’ forms of Islamophobia, which are primarily subtle and nuanced, and ‘Strong’ forms of Islamophobia, which are primarily overt and aggressive. We find that the majority of Islamophobic tweets are Weak rather than Strong (10.8% compared with 5.3%). We then use this labelling to assign users to one of six trajectories of Islamophobia, identified inductively using latent Markov modelling. These trajectories are: Never (n = 1,843), Casual (n = 2,028), Extreme (n = 976), Escalating (n = 382), De-escalating (n = 313) and minor de-escalating (n = 864). This model can then predict the aggregate number of users who engage in different strengths of Islamophobia over time. This research challenges the longstanding view that far right Twitter users comprise ‘walls of hate’. Rather, the far right is highly heterogeneous, with users exhibiting markedly different behavioural trajectories.
- You Will Not Replace Us: Hate Speech and Extremism Among Sovereign Citizens and the Alt Right in the United States
Michael Waltman (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill); N/A;
I propose to study hateful discourse produced by Sovereign Citizens and the “Alt Right” on social media platforms in the United States. Hate speech often leads their targets along a path that radicalizes them by (a) constructing a valued ingroup as significant, (b) constructing outgroups in stigmatized and stereotypical terms, (c) constructing the stigmatized outgroup as a threat to the ingroup, and (d) invites the ingroup to take pleasure in the marginalization, suffering, or killing of outgroup members. Sovereigns and the Alt Right are chosen because: (a) they represent the most recently emerging manifestations of hate and terror groups in the United States, (b) they are groups actively engaged in violence against individuals and institutions in the U.S., and (c) they share a certain “kinship” in that they blend nationalism with hatred of outgroups and the Federal Government as an ideological foundation for their terror and extremism. This discourse will be mined from YouTube, social media outlets, and Web Pages these groups employ to communicate their beliefs and activities. The final report of this project will illustrate how Sovereigns and the Alt Right use hateful discourse to radicalize their followers and promote violence against their enemies.
- Virtual Tug of War: A Socio-Technical Analysis of Online Alt-Right and Alt-Left Propaganda
Ashton Kingdon (University of Southampton) @AshKingdon;
Social Media is one of humanity’s most liberating innovations, yet has become a virtual forecourt for extremists who seek to radicalise, recruit, and disseminate propaganda, effectively transforming this technology into a vessel for hatred and violence. The research presented here combines the academic disciplines of Criminology and Computer Science to explore the socio-technical aspects of both left and right-wing online radicalisation, giving equal weight to both the influence of technology and the subcultural elements of its users. Methodologically, this paper centres on a comparative semiotic content analysis of propaganda images, in order to explore the ways in which extremists from contrasting sides of the political spectrum utilise the technology of social media to sow the seeds of dissonance, reinforce existing prejudice and target those who feel marginalised or hold an existing grievance. Utilising evidence collected from Twitter, YouTube and 4Chan, this paper argues that the burgeoning ideological divide within contemporary society, is not solely based upon societal and political upheaval, but also the ability of social media platforms to create and promote ideological echo chambers, which, in turn, accentuates the need for increased algorithmic transparency and accountability. Ultimately, this paper argues that when it comes to extremism the technology of social media is inherently neither good, nor bad, but it is not neutral either, and whilst machine learning algorithms can lead people further down a radicalisation rabbit hole, these technological mechanisms cannot be considered in isolation from the subcultural elements that surround the users of this technology.
- Like, Share, Hate: Exploring Australian and Canadian Far-Right Extremism on Facebook
Jade Hutchinson (Macquarie University), Amarnath Amarasingam (Institute for Strategic Dialogue), Derek Silva (Western University) and Ryan Scrivens (Concordia University); @JadeHutch00, @AmarAmarasingam, @derekcrim & @R_Scrivens;
As two nations that share cultural, political, and economic synergies, Canada and Australia have experienced an uptick in right-wing extremist activity as of late, from organized hate rallies in urban centres to a growing presence on social media platforms such as Facebook. Common sentiment that has been shared across these movements is a need to defend national and Western identity and culture from what adherents argue is the twin threat of unchecked immigration and the proliferation of Islam. Recent studies have described this ideological narrative as that of the ‘new radical right’, particularly in an Australian context. Little, however, is known about how this ideological shift is being experienced in a Canadian context. Drawing on a sample of Facebook pages that were hosted by Australian and Canadian right-wing extremist groups, we explore the ideological landscape and presence of both extreme-right factions online, evaluating the popularity of the group pages, the content that they post, who is targeted and how the use of violence is negotiated, and the socio-cultural similarities and differences of the online content. The results suggest that, although the Australian and Canadian extreme-right movements share broad commonalities, unique distinctions exist between the two. Understanding these distinctions will tell us much about how right-wing groups in these countries may evolve going forward and provide some insight into how to counter them.
- Are they any different? Comparative analysis of propaganda by alt-right and jihadi extremists
Weeda Mehran (Georgia State University), Stephen Herron (Queen’s University Belfast), Maura Conway (Dublin City University), Tony Lemieux (Georgia State University) and Ben Miller (Emory University); @WeedaMehran, N/A, @galwaygrrl, @aflemieux & N/A;
The Internet has been used as a safe venue for promoting political action, forging affiliations and propagating strategies by various groups taken from ultra-right movements to jihadi extremists. There is an extensive body of literature on how jihadi extremist and alt-right groups use the Internet to communicate with their supporters, disseminate their propaganda and promote their ideologies. Less is known about what sets the discourse of these seemingly different groups apart? What are the shared and different linguistic patterns used among the white supremacists and the jihadists? In this paper, we conduct a semiotic comparative analysis of online propaganda material by alt-right groups such as the American Renaissance, the Daily Stormer, Frontpage Magazine, Jihad Watch, Heritage and Destiny, Gates of Vienna, Knights of Templar International, and the propaganda by ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Tahrik-e Taliban-e Pakistan. Our data corpus consists of more than 150,000 sentences collected from English online magazines and statements. We have applied an Information, Motivation, Behaviour Skills (IMB) framework to analyse differences between alt-right and jihadi extremist groups. The IMB model stipulates that social and cognitive factors such as knowledge, attitudes, and social norms influence the willingness to learn skills and change behavior. The paper highlights the similarities and differences of these groups’ narratives particularly in relations to social, cognitive and psychological processes and drives such as achievement, power, rewards and risks.
- This is the picture Reddit Admins don’t want you to see: Alt-right antagonism on mainstream social media
Sam Bernard (University of Sussex) @sgb_lite;
In this paper, I will examine the playfully antagonistic relationship that many alt-right communities maintain with the mainstream platforms that sustain them. Using Reddit’s The_Donald as a case study, I will explore how these spaces provide something of a border zone between the alt-right and the mainstream, facilitating the rise of personalities, humour and talking points from the depths of the Internet to wider significance. The_Donald’s prominence on Reddit is central to its influence, but much of its visibility comes through deliberate attempts to irritate, troll, and otherwise antagonise the site’s wider community and administrators. Users on The_Donald adopt an ambivalent, playful style of ritualised participation that makes full and effective use of Reddit as a platform for recruitment and coordination whilst continually evading an outright ban from the site – even as other, similar communities are routinely removed. This case study sheds new light on how communities like The_Donald are able to effectively utilise popular online platforms like Reddit in spite of – and perhaps partially because of – attempts by site administrators to curb their influence.
An aggregate Twitter handles listing for academic and professional researchers looking at radical right groups’ utilisation of social media and Western responses (from the above presentations) for OSINT monitoring and tracking purposes is as follows:
Pamela Ligouri Bunker is a researcher and analyst specialising in international security and terrorism.
Dr. Robert J. Bunker is an international security and counterterrorism professional and is presently an adjunct research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) of the U.S. Army War College (USAWC) and an instructor with the Safe Communities Institute, University of Southern California. You can follow him on Twitter: @DocBunker