Academic research into online extremism and terrorism carries unique risks.
The first is repeated exposure to distressing content, such as the detailed analysis of thousands of videos or images produced by violent extremist groups. The second is the potential to be targeted by illicit actors, online and offline, through doxing, trolling, or material threats. To-date there has been little guidance for researchers on how to deal with either mental health issues caused by repeatedly viewing violent and offensive material or the challenges of staying virtually and physically safe. There has also been no comprehensive study on what those challenges or risks are.
The Researcher Security, Safety and Resilience project (REASSURE) addresses this. REASSURE is documenting and detailing researcher welfare issues, as experienced by researchers themselves.
Crucially, REASSURE will then develop strategies for mitigating these. REASSURE will draw on the knowledge base of related fields, including law enforcement, tech companies, and journalism, to produce a Charter for Researcher Ethics and Safety (CARES). This will be tailored for researchers active in the online extremism and terrorism space, giving them guidance on best practices.
REASSURE is about enhancing the wellbeing and safety of online extremism and terrorism researchers through active collaboration with the community of scholars in this field.
Phase 1: Talking to Researchers
To-date the REASSURE team has interviewed c.40 colleagues about the welfare challenges of researching in this domain, gathering their experiences and suggestions for positive change (e.g. personal coping mechanisms, technology tools, etc.).
Our interview participants compose a range of colleagues who, between them, have decades of research experience and have consumed huge amounts of online extremist and terrorist content. They come from universities and think tanks in Europe, North America, and Australia. An open-access report based on our Phase 1 interview data is presently in preparation.
Phase 2: Evolving Best Practice
Phase 2 consists of active collaboration with others professionally tasked in relation to online extremism and terrorism, law enforcement, journalism organizations, policy, and social media companies, and in allied areas (e.g. online child sex abuse).
A joint workshop is planned for Twitter’s Dublin headquarters at which our shared experiences and challenges will be collated and discussed, and ways of furthering good practice tabled.
Phase 3: A Charter for Researcher Ethics and Safety (CARES)
Phase 3 is the production of a Charter for Researcher Ethics and Safety (CARES) tailored for researchers active in the online extremism and terrorism space.
Who are REASSURE?
The project was devised during the TASM 2019 post-conference ‘sandpit’ and was one of two projects chosen to receive a small grant, arising from funding supplied by Swansea University’s CHERISH Digital Economy Centre and Facebook, on that occasion.
How did the project come about?
The issue of researcher well-being had already been raised at a joint CYTREC-VOX-Pol ‘Ethics in Terrorism Research’ workshop convened at Swansea University in April 2018.
One key emergent theme from that event was researcher self-care, with participants reporting stress, other harm to their mental and emotional wellbeing, and potential security risks, along with a lack of existing guidance on how to deal with these. REASSURE seeks to build on the 2018 workshop’s findings.
The project is in collaboration with: