Mapping terrorist exploitation of and migration between online communication and content-hosting platforms

This original research project explores how and why jihadist extremists use online communication and content-hosting platforms, and under what circumstances they migrate between them. Tracking migratory behaviours and other functional shifts at both an individual and organisational level, it draws on a longitudinal dataset containing 14.4 million posts collected from more than 4,000 Telegram channels, groups and super-groups associated with jihadist extremism.

In recent years, the research field has become saturated with studies examining what jihadists communicate about, but there are very few still-relevant academic explorations into how they are communicating it. While the various Twitter-focused network analyses that emerged between 2014 and 2017 are still of considerable intellectual value, none of them account for how jihadist extremists are using the Internet today. The reality is that, since 2016, mainstream platforms like Twitter and Facebook have been inhospitable places for them, something that has forced migrations onto less well-regulated online spaces for both content distribution and communication.

Foremost among these “other” spaces is Telegram, a hybrid communication and content-hosting platform which is favoured by a broad range of political activists. It is perhaps most well-known for being the platform of choice for jihadist extremist messaging, and not without reason. At the end of 2015, the Islamic State migrated its entire media distribution apparatus onto Telegram, with thousands of its supporters following suit. It was not alone in this migration; soon afterwards, other groups like al-Qa’ida established a robust presence there and, in 2018, right-wing extremists began to take to it as well. Notwithstanding Europol’s unprecedented attempt to permanently disrupt jihadist networks on Telegram in November 2019, this platform remains the single most important online hub for official and unofficial jihadist communication and content distribution. There is no question, however, that jihadists’ freedom to operate on it has become more contested of late, something that has prompted them to meaningfully trial other platforms in its stead.

While it is easy to make anecdotal observations about jihadists’ migratory patterns on and away from Telegram, the same is not true of scientifically rigorous, large (n) analyses. This has resulted in a gap in the research literature regarding how and why jihadist organisations and individuals migrate between online platforms. Combining advanced machine-learning technologies with deep subject matter expertise, this project will plug that gap in the knowledge.

Project webpage

Principal Investigator

Shiraz Maher

Institution

King’s College London, UK (lead)
Queen’s University, Canada

People

Amarnath Amarasingam (Co-PI)

Charlie Winter (Acting-PI)