29 March 2022
King's research has been crucial in shaping public policy on countering the presence of jihadist groups online.
King’s researchers have carried out pioneering research on how Western jihadists use the internet, which has been crucial in informing public and political discourse on online radicalisation.
The research has helped shaped public policy on how to counter the presence of jihadist groups online. It has also informed the world’s leading online platforms, such as Google, YouTube and Facebook, to ensure that they do not promote banned organisations such as Islamic State.
The Syrian conflict has been the most socially mediated conflict in history. Terrorist groups and individual actors were able to exploit mainstream social media platforms to disseminate propaganda, win new recruits, spread disinformation, and build a so-called ‘virtual Caliphate.’ Estimates have suggested up to 46,000 accounts on Twitter were operated by members or supporters of Islamic State, which played a key role in encouraging the movement of more than 30,000 people to travel to IS territory to support to the organisation.
Research led by Professor Peter Neumann, Dr Shiraz Maher and other researchers from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) in the Department of War Studies, analysed jihadists’ use of social media during the Syrian conflict. By gathering and archiving significant amounts of freely available online material, the researchers were able to make important contributions to understanding the way in which jihadist organisations have used the internet to radicalise and recruit individuals.
The project involved populating a database of around 750 Western foreign fighters active on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Ask.fm. They also created an ‘Islamic State propaganda archive’ of videos, pictures, and other publicity. The researchers then analysed the networks and relationships between different social media accounts and their ability to influence. This enabled them to start to understand the structure, dynamics, and evolution of the jihadist online ‘eco-system’, in the context of the Syrian conflict.
The findings from this body of research has enabled the development of a new methodology for measuring ‘sources of importance and influence’ within foreign fighter networks. This has made it possible to highlight jihadist ‘influencers’, who were previously largely unknown to the public. It has also demonstrated that, contrary to much of the media coverage of IS, radicalisation - and especially foreign fighter recruitment - often had a face-to-face component, with the role of online interactions easily overestimated. Lastly, it showed that IS’ presence on the internet was driven and sustained by unaffiliated grassroots supporters, rather than the organisation itself.
This research has resulted in extensive media coverage and personal briefings for policymakers, leading to impact across policy and practice in government and industry. The researchers have consistently shared their findings with policymakers, included at the US House of Representatives’ Foreign Relations Committee, as well as the UK Home Affairs and the Foreign Affairs Committees.
In terms of industry, it has shaped Facebook’s counter-terrorism policy and measures, with data from the foreign fighter database, together with expert advice, helping to inform Facebook’s foreign fighter algorithms. The ICSR has gone on to develop an ‘extremist content classifier’ for Facebook, which looks at both jihadist and far-right content.
The research has also influenced Google and YouTube’s counter-terrorism policies. King’s researchers created a list of key terms, names, and terrorist insignias to inform an artificial intelligence tool that detects and removes YouTube videos suspected of being jihadist. The ICSR has worked on projects that help Google better understand how individuals might seek out violent extremist content across their platforms.
Recognising the impact of ICSR’s work, the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), a public-private partnership by Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter, in 2019 made ICSR its principal academic partner, charged with building a global network of universities and think-tanks.