DCU Hosts Conference on Violent Online Extremism

23 June 2016

DCU is currently hosting the VOX-Pol mid-term conference. VOX-Pol, an EU Network of Excellence on violent online extremism, is coordinated by FuJo’s Maura Conway. The conference was launched by An Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald and keynote speaker J.M. Berger (George Washington University) spoke to RTÉ’s Sean O’Rourke and Newstalk’s George Hook about ISIS’ online activities. Dunja Mijatovic's delivered Thursday's keynote talk "Exercising Free Speech to Counter Violent Extremism".




Online Extremist Imagery

At Thursday’s Analysing Extremist Visuals panel, speakers highlighted the role of images in propaganda networks and discussed ways to combine qualitative methods of visual analysis with computing techniques for image processing. Much of the discussion focused on material produced by ISIS and far-right groups.

Michael Jablonski (Georgia State University) explained that images have a central role in the ISIS strategy. When ISIS take over a territory, they quickly establish a media centre and images are valuable because they are simple to acquire, easy to publish, and accessible to most people. Images also fulfil a variety of functions: they aid recruitment, keep supporters working, and act as a gateway to other material. However, Michael emphasized that Westerners often fail to understand the intended interpretative context of ISIS imagery: “we tend to apply a Western context to images that are not indented for the West”.


Presenting a database of 80,000 ISIS images produced during the first year of the Caliphate, Vít Stritecky (Charles University) noted that ISIS is “normally praised for being great at media” but they largely fail to keep their content online: “if you compare the quantity they produce and what remains online, it is not a success”.

Moign Khawaja (Dublin City University) outlined a detailed typology of profile pictures linked to ISIS accounts. He and his co-author Maura Conway noted that profile pictures are rarely analysed within research on online extremism even though profile pictures are a key indicator of extremist social media accounts.  The study identified thirteen categories of ISIS profile pictures.

The people featured in profile images are predominately male including high-profile ISIS leaders and commanders; ISIS fighters which may or may not be the account holders; ISIS supporters who are distinct from fighters as they do not bear arms; and historical figures ranging from Malcolm X to Islamic theologians.

Moign explained that militant images of children are frequently used to propagandise about the long term strength of ISIS. Such images convey a targeted message that “the next generation will be fierce”. Women, usually veiled, appear less frequently; although romantic images of married couples are used to present a vision of an ideal life in the Caliphate, he said.


Other imagery depicts the logos of ISIS media organisations, animals, cartoons, weapons and caligraphy. Regarding the media logos, Moign noted that “the guys who tweet for ISIS are quite professional”. Those who use cartoons and sketches to undermine other groups also reveal a sense of humour, he said. Images of animals, especially lions and birds, have been a very popular element of ISIS imagery. Green birds are a symbol of martyrdom and the lion is an Islamic symbol of bravery.

Stevan Rudinac (University of Amsterdam) presented a multimodal content analysis of female avatars representing the white nationalist Stormfront group. Focusing specifically on online discussions labelled ‘For Stormfront Ladies Only’, he described how the study collected over 21, 000 profile pictures. While the far right is usually conceived as a male domain, the study highlights a 'feminised' element of the far right with discussions of dating and soft imagery including avatars of cats.



Other panels on Thursday explored effective counter-narratives to online extremism, the role of youth and social media, the concept of extremist ‘lonewolves’, violent Jihadi content in specific regions, and conflict in Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka. Philip Seib (University of Southern California Annenberg) chaired a roundtable on online CVE (countering violent extremism).








The conference continues on Friday.
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