An evidence synthesis of strategies, enablers and barriers for keeping secrets online regarding the procurement and supply of illicit drugs

This systematic review attempts to understand how people keep secrets online, and in particular how people use the internet when engaging in covert behaviours and activities regarding the procurement and supply of illicit drugs. With the Internet and social media being part of everyday life for most people in western and non-western countries, there are ever-growing opportunities for individuals to engage in covert behaviours and activities online that may be considered illegal or unethical. A search strategy using Medical Subject Headings terms and relevant key words was developed. A comprehensive literature search of published and unpublished studies in electronic databases was conducted. Additional studies were identified from reference lists of previous studies and (systematic) reviews that had similar objectives as this search, and were included if they fulfilled our inclusion criteria. Two researchers independently screened abstracts and full-texts for study eligibility and evaluated the quality of included studies. Disagreements were resolved by a consensus procedure. The systematic review includes 33 qualitative studies and one cross-sectional study, published between 2006 and 2018. Five covert behaviours were identified: the use of communication channels; anonymity; visibility reduction; limited posts in public; following forum rules and recommendations. The same technologies that provide individuals with easy access to information, such as social networking sites and forums, digital devices, digital tools and services, also increase the prevalence of inaccurate information, loss of privacy, identity theft and disinhibited communication. This review takes a rigorous interdisciplinary approach to synthesising knowledge on the strategies adopted by people in keeping secrets online. Whilst the focus is on the procurement and supply of illicit drugs, this knowledge is transferrable to a range of contexts where people keep secrets online. It has particular significance for those who design online/social media applications, and for law enforcement and security agencies.

(From the journal abstract)

Grimani, A., Gavine, A., & Moncur, W. (2020a). An evidence synthesis of strategies, enablers and barriers for keeping secrets online regarding the procurement and supply of illicit drugs. International Journal of Drug Policy, 75, 102621.
Fascist aspirants: Fascist Forge and ideological learning in the extreme-right online milieu

Learning in extremist settings is often treated as operational, with little regard to how aspiring participants in extremist settings engage with complex and abstract ideological material. This paper examines learning in the context of the amorphous network of digital channels that compose the extreme-right online milieu. Through an in-depth qualitative analysis, we explore how well the prevailing model of extremist ideological learning (in ‘communities of practice’) accounts for the behaviour of aspiring participants of Fascist Forge, a now-defunct extreme-right web forum. The findings suggest that some of the social aspects of communities of practice have been replicated in the online setting of Fascist Forge. However, for a combination of technical and ideological reasons, the more directed and nurturing aspects of learning have not. Several issues are raised about the role of ideological learning in online communities, notably the open accessibility of extremist material, the lack of ideological control leading to potential mutation and innovation by self-learners, and the role of digital learning in the preparation, shaping and recruitment of individuals for real world organising and activism.

(From the journal abstract)

Lee, B., & Knott, K. (2021). Fascist aspirants: Fascist Forge and ideological learning in the extreme-right online milieu. Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, 1–25.
Staying Engaged in Terrorism: Narrative Accounts of Sustaining Participation in Violent Extremism

Research exploring radicalization pathways and how and why people become involved in terrorism has expanded since the 9/11 attacks. Likewise, over the last decade research exploring de-radicalization and desistence from terrorism has grown and expanded in an attempt to promote exit from extremist or terror groups. However, research studies on how individuals sustain engagement in terrorism and their involvement with extremist organizations, often in the face of great adversity, are absent from the body of research. To address this scarcity of research this study analyzed accounts of engagement in violent extremism produced by Northern Irish loyalist and republican paramilitaries in order to explore how their paramilitary lifestyle, perpetration of acts of political violence and the pressure from countering threats posed by rival groups, and the State security forces impacted on them. The analysis utilized a hybrid of thematic analysis and interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA). The themes raised through the analysis reflected the psychological, social and economic hardship associated with this lifestyle. The narrative accounts also illustrated psychological changes associated to engagement in violence and from insulation within tightly knit extremist groups. As most of the participants faced incarceration during their paramilitary careers, themes also reflected on the impact imprisonment had on them. The themes explored factors that sustained their involvement, including the role of identity development and identity fusion in sustaining their extremism, the impact of insulated group membership, feelings of efficacy, dehumanization processes, community support, and beliefs in the utility of violence.

(From the journal abstract)

Ferguson, N., & McAuley, J. W. (2020b). Staying Engaged in Terrorism: Narrative Accounts of Sustaining Participation in Violent Extremism. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 1338.
Prophets and Loss: How “Soft Facts” on Social Media Influenced the Brexit Campaign and Social Reactions to the Murder of Jo Cox MP

This article examines “soft facts” about security issues in the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign. Soft facts arise when information provenance is uncertain, and are forms of malleable and contingent knowledge, such as rumors, conspiracy theories, and propaganda. There is a growing appreciation that digital communications environments are especially conducive to the dissemination of these kinds of information. Informed by empirical data comprising forty-five thousand nine hundred and fifty-seven data points collected by monitoring social media before and after the UK Brexit referendum campaign (June 16–October 12, 2016), the analysis examines how and why a series of soft facts concerning Brexit were mobilized. By developing the concept of “digital prophecy,” the article explores how influence is exerted by online prophets who were connecting current events to past grievances, to advance negative predictions about the future. This starts to capture the tradecraft of digital influencing, in ways that move beyond the structural topologies of communication networks. In policy terms, the analysis reminds us of the need to attend not just to how influence is achieved through fake news (e.g., using social media bots to amplify a message), but also why influence is sought in the first place.

(From the journal abstract)

Dobreva, D., Grinnell, D., & Innes, M. (2020). Prophets and Loss: How “Soft Facts” on Social Media Influenced the Brexit Campaign and Social Reactions to the Murder of Jo Cox MP. Policy & Internet, 12(2), 144–164.
Why do people spread false information online? The effects of message and viewer characteristics on self-reported likelihood of sharing social media disinformation

Individuals who encounter false information on social media may actively spread it further, by sharing or otherwise engaging with it. Much of the spread of disinformation can thus be attributed to human action. Four studies (total N = 2,634) explored the effect of message attributes (authoritativeness of source, consensus indicators), viewer characteristics (digital literacy, personality, and demographic variables) and their interaction (consistency between message and recipient beliefs) on self-reported likelihood of spreading examples of disinformation. Participants also reported whether they had shared real-world disinformation in the past. Reported likelihood of sharing was not influenced by authoritativeness of the source of the material, nor indicators of how many other people had previously engaged with it. Participants’ level of digital literacy had little effect on their responses. The people reporting the greatest likelihood of sharing disinformation were those who thought it likely to be true, or who had pre-existing attitudes consistent with it. They were likely to have previous familiarity with the materials. Across the four studies, personality (lower Agreeableness and Conscientiousness, higher Extraversion and Neuroticism) and demographic variables (male gender, lower age and lower education) were weakly and inconsistently associated with self-reported likelihood of sharing. These findings have implications for strategies more or less likely to work in countering disinformation in social media.

(From the journal abstract)

Buchanan, T. (2020). Why do people spread false information online? The effects of message and viewer characteristics on self-reported likelihood of sharing social media disinformation. PLOS ONE, 15(10), e0239666.
ISIS Propaganda: A Full-Spectrum Extremist Message

This book offers a comprehensive overview and analysis of the Islamic State's use of propaganda.

Combining a range of different theoretical perspectives from across the social sciences, and using rigorous methods, the authors trace the origins of the Islamic State's message, laying bare the strategic logic guiding its evolution, examining each of its multi-media components, and showing how these elements work together to radicalize audiences' worldviews.

This volume highlights the challenges that this sort of "full-spectrum propaganda" raises for counter terrorism forces. It is not only a one-stop resource for any analyst of IS and Salafi-jihadism, but also a rich contribution to the study of text and visual propaganda, radicalization and political violence, and international security.

(From the book abstract)

Stephane J. Baele, Katharine A. Boyd, and Travis G. Coan. 2020. ‘ISIS Propaganda: A Full-Spectrum Extremist Message’. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN: 9780190932459 

Techniques of disinformation: Constructing and communicating “soft facts” after terrorism

Informed by social media data collected following four terror attacks in the UK in 2017, this article delineates a series of “techniques of disinformation” used by different actors to try and influence how the events were publicly defined and understood.

By studying the causes and consequences of misleading information following terror attacks, the article contributes empirically to the neglected topic of social reactions to terrorism. It also advances scholarship on the workings of disinforming communications, by focusing on a domain other than political elections, which has been the empirical focus for most studies of disinformation to date.

Theoretically, the analysis is framed by drawing an analogy with Gresham Sykes and David Matza’s (1957) account of the role of “techniques of neutralization” originally published in the American Sociological Review. The connection being that where they studied deviant behaviour, a similar analytic lens can usefully be applied to disinformation cast as “deviant” information.

(From the journal abstract)

Martin Innes, 2019. Techniques of disinformation: Constructing and communicating “soft facts” after terrorism. British Journal of Sociology. https ://

The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories

What psychological factors drive the popularity of conspiracy theories, which explain important events as secret plots by powerful and malevolent groups? What are the psychological consequences of adopting these theories? We review the current research and find that it answers the first of these questions more thoroughly than the second. Belief in conspiracy theories appears to be driven by motives that can be characterized as epistemic (understanding one’s environment), existential (being safe and in control of one’s environment), and social (maintaining a positive image of the self and the social group). However, little research has investigated the consequences of conspiracy belief, and to date, this research does not indicate that conspiracy belief fulfills people’s motivations. Instead, for many people, conspiracy belief may be more appealing than satisfying. Further research is needed to determine for whom, and under what conditions, conspiracy theories may satisfy key psychological motives.

(From the journal abstract)

Karen Douglas, Robbie M. Sutton, and Aleksandra Cichocka. 2017. ‘The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories’. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26 (6): 538–42.

Understanding Conspiracy Theories

Scholarly efforts to understand conspiracy theories have grown significantly in recent years, and there is now a broad and interdisciplinary literature. In reviewing this body of work, we ask three specific questions. First, what factors are associated with conspiracy beliefs? Our review of the literature shows that conspiracy beliefs result from a range of psychological, political, and social factors. Next, how are conspiracy theories communicated? Here, we explain how conspiracy theories are shared among individuals and spread through traditional and social media platforms. Next, what are the societal risks and rewards associated with conspiracy theories? By focusing on politics and science, we argue that conspiracy theories do more harm than good. We conclude by suggesting several promising avenues for future research.

(From the journal abstract)

Karen Douglas, Joseph E. Uscinski, Robbie M. Sutton, Aleksandra Cichocka, Turkay Nefes, Chee Siang Ang, and Farzin Deravi. 2019. ‘Understanding Conspiracy Theories’. Political Psychology, 40 (S1): 3–35.

‘It’s not paranoia when they are really out to get you’: the role of conspiracy theories in the context of heightened security

Conspiracy theories have been seen as important supporting components in extreme political beliefs. This paper considers conspiracy theories in the counter jihad movement, an international network combining cultural nationalism with xenophobia towards Muslims.

This paper evaluates the nature of conspiracy belief through the analysis of several key texts published by counter jihad activists, and of content published on a daily basis by three core websites. The findings show the Islamisation conspiracy theory to be highly modular, with authors able to mix and match villains.

The analysis of daily published content demonstrates that, at the routine level, conspiracy theory is rarely used openly as a call to action.

This is in keeping with other examples of conspiracy theory in extreme right wing movements in which conspiracy is seen as justification for existing prejudices. However, the political and security context the counter jihad operates in also affords the movement opportunities to support some of their claims, often by reproducing or reinterpreting mainstream or quasi-mainstream reporting, without reverting openly to conspiracy tropes.

In the case of the counter jihad movement, as well as potentially other far-right movements, conspiracy theory may be taking a back seat to a more sophisticated public relations approach.

(From the journal abstract)

Lee, Benjamin J. 2017. ‘It’s Not Paranoia When They Are Really out to Get You: The Role of Conspiracy Theories in the Context of Heightened Security’. Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression 9 (1): 4–20.

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