Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Terrorism and Social Media Conference Part One

This is the first part of a two-part series on the #TASM conference. Please look out for the next part of this series later this week!

The 27th and 28th June saw the congregation of some of the world’s leading experts in counter-terrorism and 145 delegates from 15 countries embark on Swansea University’s Bay Campus for the Cyberterrorism Project’s Terrorism and Social Media conference (#TASMConf). Over the two days, 59 speakers presented their research into terrorists’ use of social media and responses to this phenomenon. The keynote speakers consisted of Sir John Scarlett (former head of MI6), Max Hill QC (the UK’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation), Dr Erin Marie Saltman (Facebook’s Policy Manager for counter-terrorism and counter-extremism in Europe, the Middle East and Africa), Professor Philip Bobbitt, Professor Maura Conway and Professor Bruce Hoffman. The conference oversaw a diverse range of disciplines including law, criminology, psychology, security studies, linguistics, and many more. Amy-Louise Watkin and Joe Whittaker take us through what was discussed (blog originally posted here).

Proceedings kicked off with keynotes Professor Bruce Hoffman and Professor Maura Conway. Professor Hoffman discussed the threat from the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda (AQ). He discussed several issues, one of which was the quiet regrouping of AQ, stating that their presence in Syria should be seen as just as dangerous as and even more pernicious than IS. He concluded that the Internet is one of the main reasons why IS has been so successful, predicting that as communication technologies continue to evolve, so will terrorists use of social media and the nature of terrorism itself. Professor Conway followed with a presentation discussing the key challenges in researching online extremism and terrorism. She focused mainly on the importance of widening the groups we research (not just IS!), widening the platforms we research (not just Twitter!), widening the mediums we research (not just text!), and additionally discussed the many ethical challenges that we face in this field.

The key point from the first keynote session was to widen the research undertaken in this field and we think that the presenters at TASM were able to make a good start on this with research on different languages, different groups, different platforms, females, and children. Starting with different languages, Professor Haldun Yalcinkaya and Bedi Celik presented their research in which they adopted Berger and Morgan’s 2015 methodology on English speaking Daesh supporters on Twitter and applied this to Turkish speaking Daesh supporters on Twitter. They undertook this research while Twitter was undergoing major account suspensions which dramatically reduced their dataset. They compared their findings with Berger and Morgan’s study and a previous Turkish study, finding a significant decrease in the follower and followed counts, noting that the average followed count was even lower than the average Twitter user. They found that other average values followed a similar trend, suggesting that their dataset had less power on Twitter than previous findings, and that this could be interpreted as successful evidence of Twitter suspensions.

Next, we saw a focus away from the Middle East as Dr Pius Eromonsele Akhimien presented his research on Boko Haram and their social media war narratives. His research focused on linguistics from YouTube videos between 2014 when the Chobok girls were abducted until 2016 when some of the girls were released. Dr Akhimien emphasised the use of language as a weapon of war. His research revealed that Boko Haram displayed a lot of confidence in their language choice and reinforced this through the use of strong statements. They additionally used taunts to emphasise their control, for example, “yes I have your girls, what can you do?” Lastly, they used threats, and followed through with these offline.

Continuing the focus away from the Middle East, Dr Lella Nouri, Professor Nuria Lorenzo-Dus and Dr Matteo Di Cristofaro presented their inter-disciplinary research into the far-right’s Britain First (BF) and Reclaim Australia (RA). This research used corpus assisted discourse analysis (CADS) to analyse firstly why these groups are using social media and secondly, the ways in which these groups are achieving their use of social media. The datasets were collected from Twitter and Facebook using the social media analytic tool Blurrt. One of the key findings was that both groups clearly favoured the use of Facebook over Twitter, which is not seen to be the same in other forms of extremism. Also, both groups saliently used othering, with Muslims and immigrants found to be the primary targets. The othering technique was further analysed to find that RA tended to use a specific topic or incident to support their goals and promote their ideology, while BF tended to portray Muslims as paedophiles and groomers to support their goals and ideology.

The diversity continued as Dr Aunshul Rege examined the role of females who have committed hijrah on Twitter. The most interesting finding from Dr Rege’s research was the contradicting duality of the role of these women. Many of the women were complaining post-hijrah of the issues that pushed them into committing hijrah in the first place: loneliness, cultural alienation, language barriers, differential treatment, and freedom restrictions. They tweeted using the hashtag #nobodycaresaboutawidow and advised young women who were thinking of committing hijrah to bring Western home comforts with them, such as make-up.

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