VOX-Pol’s new report presents findings from the REASSURE (Researcher, Security, Safety, and Resilience) project’s in-depth interviews with 39 online extremism and terrorism researchers. Based at universities, research institutes, and think tanks in Europe and North America, the interviewees studied mainly, albeit not exclusively, far-right and violent jihadist online activity. The report catalogues for the first time the range of harms they have experienced, the lack of formalised systems of care or training, and their reliance therefore on informal support networks to mitigate those harms.
For decades now, extremists and terrorists have used online spaces to propagandise, recruit, plan attacks and even livestream them. Researchers have followed them there, recognising the potential of the Internet as a space in which to observe this activity and gather data. In many ways, working online has made researching extremism and terrorism both easier and safer; still, even online, this research continues to carry risks. In the past, these risks were hardly touched upon within the researcher community. Now, however, the sub-field has evolved, and the challenges of online extremism and terrorism research are increasingly recognised as valid and important subjects for discussion.
The REASSURE report is an important contribution to that discussion. The report has three core concerns: the harms faced by online extremism and terrorism researchers; their coping mechanisms; and institutional supports or the lack thereof. Some key findings:
- Interviewees’ belief in the critical importance and ‘real world’ impact of online extremism and terrorism research;
- A third of interviewees did not report harm beyond that of any job;
- Two thirds reported some harms, with more than half saying those harms were significant;
- Almost half of interviewees had had no awareness of the potential risks of researching in this sub-field before beginning their research;
- Nine interviewees reported death threats, some credible;
- More than half of interviewees turned to the community of researchers for help when faced with harm(s), feeling that their work was so specialised, only that community could sufficiently understand their experiences;
- Approximately a third of interviewees had discussed their research with an ethics board, most of them getting the impression that the board’s priority focus was institutional protection;
- Identity mattered with regard to harms, with female researchers and researchers of colour affected by their work, or targeted by extremists, in particular ways;
- Junior researchers reported the most harms; in addition, they risked professional harm if, as a protective mechanism, they sought to remove themselves from public spaces (e.g., media appearances, social media).
Unfortunately, few institutions provided adequate formalised training, care, or support for (online) extremism and terrorism researchers. In many, researchers were left to develop their own Do-It-Yourself responses to the risks they faced. And while a handful of institutions did provide protections for ‘real world’ researchers, despite this they often failed to recognise the online space as a field of study carrying its own risks.
Now is the time for this to change. Online extremism and terrorism researchers want to be involved in creating formal change in universities and other research institutions, to ensure that, going forward, sufficient guidance, training, and support is provided for researchers – especially those new to the sub-field.
A growing body of research demonstrates how people working in other professions, such as journalism, the emergency services, tech companies, and humanitarian organisations, have been damaged by exposure to violent and/or hateful online content. Employers and professional bodies in these areas have therefore begun to produce, and follow, good practice guidelines to safeguard their employees and members. This report confirms that online extremism and terrorism researchers face many of the same harms.
Harms are not inevitable. Prior knowledge, preparation, and institutional responsiveness are key. It is time for universities and think tanks to learn from the work done by journalism bodies, social media companies, and humanitarian agencies, among others, to ensure that those doing online extremism and terrorism research are sufficiently supported and protected. Crucial in this endeavour will be the inclusion of the research community as partners when developing these good practices.
The REASSURE report is the culmination of Phase One of the REASSURE project. It provides, for the first time, detailed insight into the harms experienced by online extremism and terrorism researchers. Phase Two will increase our learning from others professionally tasked in this area by compiling good practices from these domains and reflecting on how they may be refined and customised for deployment by online extremism and terrorism researchers and their institutions. In REASSURE’s final phase, it is planned to produce tailored harm‑reduction guidelines for online extremism and terrorism researchers.