Roundtable on online data

One of the major avenues for obtaining data for terrorism research is the internet. Some scholars use internet-based data to study the ideas that motivate terrorism and radicalization.

Venue: Auditorium 7, ESH

Many researchers study online behavior directly, including propaganda and recruitment, ideological discussion and indoctrination, trolling and harassment, etc. Other researchers use internet-based data to study offline behavior: for example, videos showing acts of violence, images that provide clues about geographic location, and descriptions of offline meetings. Still others investigate how the internet can facilitate counterterrorism and deradicalization policies.

The internet can be a rich source of data for researchers, but it also has unique challenges that other sources of data do not have. For example, platforms actively work to remove terrorist content from their sites, but often can only do this in hindsight, after that content has already reached an audience. Other platforms are not supportive of research on their platforms in many cases; those policies that can make data collection in particular more difficult are not necessarily designed with terrorism research in mind, but restrictions on APIs, for example, can complicate efforts to gather robust data.

The participants in this roundtable will present their thoughts and experiences of working with internet-based data to research terrorism and extremism. This discussion will focus on new challenges and opportunities for researchers in this area.


  • Maura Conway (DCU, VOX-Pol): Terrorism and social media research: Negotiating terms of service?
  • J.M. Berger (Swansea, VOX-Pol): Bringing together network analysis and content analysis
  • Sam Jackson (University at Albany): The data is big, but is it good?
  • Desmond Patton (Columbia University): Technical and ethical challenges to studying violence and threat online
  • Vidhya Ramalingam (Moonshot CVE): Tools for identifying extremist content online


Maura Conway

Bio: Maura Conway is Professor of International Security in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University and the Coordinator of VOX-Pol. Her research interests are in the intersections of violence extremism, terrorism, and the Internet.

Abstract: Violent extremists and terrorists--like the rest of us--are increasingly reliant on social media platforms, content hosting sites, and messaging apps to host and circulate their content. This has both pros and cons for the violent actors themselves, but also those researching them. Prof. Conway will discuss some of these positives and negatives from a researcher perspective, with a particular emphasis on negotiating social media platforms--often opaque--Terms of Service and guidelines for developers.

J.M. Berger

Bio: J.M. Berger is the author of Extremism (MIT Press, August 2018). He is a research fellow with VOX-Pol and a postgraduate research student at Swansea University's School of Law, where he studies extremist ideologies. As a consultant for social media and security companies and government agencies, he has conducted research and training on issues related to homegrown terrorism, online extremism, advanced social media analysis, and countering violent extremism (CVE).

Abstract: Social media analysis often falls into two categories, social network analysis and content analysis (including sentiment, semantics and NLP). Future research should focus on merging these approaches for a fuller picture of extremism online and developing improved content analysis techniques. One approach, concept mapping, will be discussed in detail.

Sam Jackson

Bio: Sam Jackson is an Assistant Professor in the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security, and Cybersecurity at the University at Albany. His research focuses on right-wing extremism in the U.S.; social media, activism, and conflict; and computational social science. His first book, “The Oath Keepers: Patriotism, Dissent, and Violence,” will be published by Columbia University Press in 2020.

Abstract: The internet is an enormous source of data for scholars of terrorism and extremism. Indeed, this field benefits from “big data” as much as any. But having more data is no guarantee that the data is useful in drawing conclusions about the questions that researchers ask of it. This talk will pose some questions for researchers to keep in mind when using big data, as well as some possible strategies for making sure that big data is good data.

Desmond Patton

Bio: Dr. Desmond U. Patton is an associate professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work and a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. He is the founding director of SAFElab, a member of the Data Science Institute, and a faculty affiliate of the Social Intervention Group (SIG). In partnership with the Data Science Institute, he is developing an online tool for detecting aggression in social media posts.

Abstract: Dr. Patton will discuss technical and ethical challenges related to his work studying the ways in which gang-involved youth conceptualize threats on social media, and the extent to which social media shapes and facilitates youth and gang violence. Discussion will include the role of community partnerships with social media companies. This will also include some discussion on how studies of extremism and terrorism can learn from this work.

Vidhya Ramalingam

            Bio: Vidhya Ramalingam is co-Founder of Moonshot CVE, a company using technology to disrupt and counter violent extremism globally. She directs overall strategy and oversees campaigns, software development, and digital projects in over 25 countries. She holds various roles including Commissioning Panellist for the UK Security and Intelligence agencies and ESRC, Research Associate at University of Oxford, and Board Member of Life After Hate. Prior to founding Moonshot, Vidhya was Senior Fellow on Far-Right Extremism and Intolerance at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), and led the EU’s first cross-government initiative on far-right terrorism and extremism, initiated by the Swedish Ministry of Justice.


This talk will explore opportunities for data harvesting for the purposes of practitioner engagement with violent extremism online. Moonshot CVE develops software and tools to automate the process of identifying violent extremist communities online, in order to map these communities, generate evidence to inform programming, and facilitate messaging campaigns and interventions online. This talk will touch on opportunities and challenges in developing and using these tools, through presentation of key case studies from Moonshot CVE's programmes.

Published Mar. 15, 2019 3:53 PM - Last modified Apr. 23, 2019 1:33 PM