Exposure to Online Terrorist Content: Stresses and Strategies

This blog post is an edited extract from the article Repeated and Extensive Exposure to Online Terrorist Content: Counter-Terrorism Internet Referral Unit Perceived Stresses and Strategies, published in July 2020 in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism.

By Zoey Reeve

There is increasing concern that exposure to online terrorist material may increase the risk of terrorist attacks and radicalisation of viewers.  This concern is associated with various drives from governments, law enforcement, and large internet platforms and providers to identify and remove this material from the internet. To pursue this objective, the UK Metropolitan Police established the Counter-Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (CTIRU) in 2010. CTIRU Case Officers (COs) seek, identify, and facilitate the removal of terrorist material from the internet, working in cooperation with internet platforms and providers, which may voluntarily remove content deemed illegal by UK law. Platforms like Google, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook have their own teams of content moderators, who are in communication with units like CTIRU.

Major internet platforms and providers have begun to develop and utilise artificial intelligence (AI) to help identify and remove terrorist material, although they are somewhat limited, particularly where there is complexity, historical or religious doctrine, and does not include graphic imagery or symbols representing a proscribed terrorist organisation. Human assessors, whether employed by industry or law enforcement, continue to provide a critical service removing terrorist material from the online sphere. In practice, this means that human assessors and COs are extensively and repeatedly exposed to material that has been deemed to not only be illegal, but also harmful.

The potential damage that could be caused by this exposure to terrorist material has been noted in various ways by internet companies. However, little research has been conducted to evaluate the degree to which harm can be caused in these roles. This research published in the Journal of Conflict and Terrorism Studies generates new qualitative data via semi-structured interviews with CTIRU COs, shedding light on the kind of material they are routinely exposed to, disturbingness of material, perceived health and wellbeing, and coping mechanisms employed.

The findings of this research reveal that COs’ perceived health and wellbeing is largely very good, despite repeated and extensive exposure to various types of disturbing, graphic, violent terrorist and non-terrorist material. COs engage in various forms of coping mechanisms, which are supported (and sometimes inhibited) by organisational and individual factors. However, Occupational Health provision was largely not well understood or regarded, but several suggestions were offered by COs to improve it.

Unsurprisingly, disturbing material is a significant source of stress for COs and this is likely to also be the case for non-Internet Referral Unit individuals (i.e. academics, journalists, CVE practitioners). Different people find different types of material more or less disturbing for different reasons. The roots of these differences are difficult to trace, but it appears that personal situations, time in the role, social and professional support, and emotional and empathetic tendencies, impact the degree to which this source of stress negatively affects individuals. This variation of individual factors (i.e. personal life, personal characteristics) and professional factors (i.e. time on job, professional support) presents a challenge in understanding and mitigating the risks of work that includes exposure to terrorist material. On this basis, we can develop a set of tools to support the health and wellbeing of those who are regularly exposed to terrorist material as part of their roles. This toolkit can be split into two: Building Awareness, and Building Resilience.

Building Awareness

Awareness should be raised in the individuals exposed to terrorist material, and the organisations employing them. This awareness pertains to the individual and professional factors that influence: a) what kind of material may be most harmful to a given individual, b) the extent to which an individuals’ personal living situation may buffer against or promote vulnerability to material, c) what personal characteristics may buffer against or promote vulnerability to material, d) what kind of professional support factors can help to protect against the negative aspects of this type of role.

Building Resilience

In addition to promoting awareness, there are a number of insights drawn from the current study that can be utilised to mitigate risks to the health and wellbeing of those working with terrorist material online. Firstly, adopting a supported and staggered exposure training approach may help to ease individuals into the sphere of terrorist material gradually, with the aim of increasing resilience over time. Secondly, the establishment of a supportive community of individuals in this field who can share their experiences and best practices, may provide additional social support and shared experiences in lieu of sharing these experiences with family and friends whom the individual may wish to protect. Thirdly, individuals – supported and enabled by their organisations – should incorporate the kinds of coping mechanisms found effective by CTIRU into the working environment.

This study offers a glimpse into the way CTIRU experiences, perceives, and manages the effects of exposure to terrorist and non-terrorist material, helping us to understand the kind of harms we might expect to potentially affect other types of assessors, including those working in industry and academia. Building a toolkit that raises awareness of the potential risks, as well as providing tools to mitigate those risks can be utilised by organisations and individuals who are working with terrorist material in order to protect them from the potentially negative effects of their role.

Zoey Reeve is a researcher at Cranfield University. Her research focuses on the social-evolutionary psychology of radicalisation and terrorism in both online and offline spheres. On Twitter @ZoeyReeve

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