How a “new kind of physics” could track down extremists online

Science Focus The Home of BBC Science Focus Magazine
May 19, 2021

I started researching extremist activity online with an Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) competition in 2011. The competition was: given that you know publicly available information, what can you predict about future events in the real world?

At that stage, we were looking at Twitter. You can [now] hear the equivalent of Twitter from the guy standing with a megaphone outside. Everybody stops and takes selfies, and it attracts attention, but I’ve never seen anyone go, “you’re right, you’ve changed my thinking”. That happens in other areas like communities online where trust is built. That doesn’t exist on Twitter.

In 2014, a Russian speaker in my group hit upon activity around Islamic State (ISIS) on V.contakte, the Russian social media platform. We tried to find them on Facebook, but Facebook had already shut them down. V.contakte, though, would only occasionally shut them down. That was interesting, because if they’d let them just go and not interrupted them, then ISIS would have grown into one big blob of ice – easy to get rid of. But they didn’t.

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