On 22 May 2017 Tech Against Terrorism participated in the VOX-Pol workshop on “Comparative approaches to understanding violent and non-violent extremism”, at University College London. The event brought together a range of academics and researchers working on all kinds of extremism – in a conscious effort on VOX-Pol’s part to cover more than just the jihadi threat, on which most attention usually falls.

Several presentations, for instance, focused on the extreme right. One looked at the rising then falling fortunes of the far-right English Defence League from 2010 onwards – played out on the streets and on Facebook – as the “buzz” and other “benefits of membership” that made the EDL initially appealing gave way to costs associated with the stigma of participation and managing the “open racists” in its midst.

Another, based on analysis of far-right Twitter users’ accounts, addressed whether right-wing extremism feeds off right-wing populism, whether one leads to the other, and whether the two are evolving in parallel. Here, though, results were reported as inconclusive, though a significant degree of “hashtag co-occurrence” between populist right and extreme right hashtags suggests a linkage warranting further study, it was argued.

Other presentations looked at Irish republican extremism – which has “fewer and quieter supporters” online now than previously, participants heard, with supporters instead reverting to grassroots “backroom and bar talk” methods – as well as the (unclear) effect of online anonymity on radicalism and the (in)effectiveness of online counter-narrative efforts.

Photo credit: VOX-Pol Twitter (@VOX_Pol)

The latter, based on a preliminary systematic review of decades’ worth of counter-narrative projects, suggested that there is no real evidence as to which counter-narratives work and which don’t – or why – and that measurement is in any case hard, but that it is likely too simplistic to view such efforts in isolation of a situation’s context.

Not all presentations kept away from the jihadi realm. One discussed the “pioneering” use of “new media” technologies by foreign jihadist fighters in the North Caucasus in the 1990s. The research on which this presentation was based revealed, among other findings, that foreign fighters there helped create what was termed an “online jihadi aesthetic” (way of dress, and of posing etc.) that is now mirrored by fighters in Syria.

Another talked through a project to spread anti-ISIS propaganda videos to ISIS supporters on Facebook – to “infect their digital territory” – by first befriending those supporters and winning their trust using fake accounts. The effort was ended prematurely when Facebook intervened to take the fake accounts down – before any conclusive results could be drawn, but not before some of the released videos had been unwittingly liked and shared onward by the target users.

Tech Against Terrorism would like to thank VOX-Pol for accommodating us at the event, and UCL for hosting. We look forward to participating in many others.