Introducing Martin Dittus, Data Scientist and Darknet Researcher

We’re sitting upstairs, hunched over a computer, and Martin is showing me the darknet. I guess I have as good an idea as most people what the darknet is, i.e. not much. We’re looking at the page of someone claiming to be in the UK who’s selling “locally produced” cannabis, and Martin is wondering if there’s any way of telling if it’s blood cannabis. How you would go about determining this? Much of what is sold on these markets is illegal, and can lead to prosecution, as with any market for illegal products.

But we’re not buying anything, just looking. The stringent ethics process governing his research means he currently can’t even contact anyone on the marketplace.

[Read more: Exploring the Darknet in Five Easy Questions]

Martin Dittus is a Data Scientist at the Oxford Internet Institute, and I’ve come to his office to find out about the OII’s investigation (undertaken with Mark Graham and Joss Wright) of the economic geographies of illegal economic activities in anonymous Internet marketplaces, or more simply: “mapping the darknet.” Basically: what’s being sold, by whom, from where, to where, and what’s the overall value?

Between 2011 and 2013, the Silk Road marketplace attracted hundreds of millions of dollars worth of bitcoin-based transactions before being closed down by the FBI, but relatively little is known about the geography of this global trade. The darknet throws up lots of interesting research topics: around traffic in illegal wildlife products, the effect of healthcare policies on demand for illegal prescription drugs, whether law enforcement has (or can have) much of an impact, questions around the geographies of trade (e.g. sites of production and consumption), and the economics of these marketplaces—as well as the ethics of researching all this.

OII researchers tend to come from very different disciplinary backgrounds, and I’m always curious about what brings people here. A computer scientist by training, Martin first worked as a software developer for, an online music community that built some of the first pieces of big data infrastructure, “because we had a lot of data and very little money.” In terms of the professional experience he says it showed him how far you can get by being passionate about your work—and the importance of resourcefulness; “that a good answer is not to say, ‘No, we can’t do that,’ but to say: ‘Well, we can’t do it this way, but here are three other ways we can do it instead.’”

Resourcefulness is certainly something you need when researching darknet marketplaces. Two very large marketplaces, AlphaBay and Hansa were recently taken down by the FBI, DEA and Dutch National Police, part-way through Martin’s data collection. Having your source suddenly disappear is a worry for any long-term data scraping process. However in this case, it raises the opportunity of moving beyond a simple observational study to a quasi-experiment. The disruption allows researchers to observe what happens in the overall marketplace after the external intervention—does trade actually go down, or simply move elsewhere? How resilient are these marketplaces to interference by law enforcement?

Having originally worked in industry for a few years, Martin completed a Master’s programme at UCL’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, which included training in cartography. The first time I climbed the three long flights of stairs to his office to say hello we quickly got talking about crisis mapping platforms, something he’d subsequently worked on during his PhD at UCL. He’s particularly interested in the historic context for the recent emergence of these platforms, where large numbers of people come together over a shared purpose: “Platforms like Wikipedia, for example, can have significant social and economic impact, while at the same time not necessarily being designed platforms. Wikipedia is something that kind of emerged, it’s the online encyclopaedia that somehow worked. For me that meant that there is great power in these platform models, but very little understanding of what they actually represent, or how to design them; even how to conceptualise them.”

“You can think of Wikipedia as a place for discourse, as a community platform, as an encyclopaedia, as an example of collective action. There are many theoretical ways to interpret it, and I think this makes it very powerful, but also very hard to understand what Wikipedia is; or indeed any large and complex online platform, like the darknet markets we’re looking at now. I think we’re at a moment in history where we have this new superpower that we don’t fully understand yet, so it’s a time to build knowledge.” Martin claims to have become “a PhD student by accident” while looking for a way to participate in this knowledge building: and found that doing a PhD was a great way to do so.

Whether discussing Wikipedia, crisis-mapping, the darknet, or indeed data infrastructures, it’s great to hear people talking about having to study things from many different angles — because that’s what the OII, as a multidisciplinary department, does in spades. It’s what we do. And Martin certainly agrees: “I feel incredibly privileged to be here. I have a technical background, but these are all intersectional, interdisciplinary, highly complex questions, and you need a cross-disciplinary perspective to look at them. I think we’re at a point where we’ve built a lot of the technological building blocks for online spaces, and what’s important now are the social questions around them: what does it mean, what are those capacities, what can we use them for, and how do they affect our societies?”

Social questions around darknet markets include the development of trust relationships between buyers and sellers (despite the explicit goal of law enforcement agencies to fundamentally undermine trust between them); identifying societal practices like consumption of recreational drugs, particularly when transplanted into a new online context; and the nature of market resilience, like when markets are taken down by law enforcement. “These are not, at core, technical questions,” Martin says. “Technology will play a role in answering them, but fundamentally these are much broader questions. What I think is unique about the OII is that it has a strong technical competence in its staff and research, but also a social, political, and economic science foundation that allows a very broad perspective on these matters. I think that’s absolutely unique.”

There were only a few points in our conversation where Martin grew awkward, a few topics he said he “would kind of dance around“ rather than provide on-record chat for a blog post. He was keen not to inadvertently provide a how-to guide for obtaining, say, fentanyl on the darknet; there are tricky unanswered questions of class (do these marketplaces allow a gentrification of illegal activities?) and the whitewashing of the underlying violence and exploitation inherent to these activities (thinking again about blood cannabis); and other areas where there’s simply not yet enough research to make firm pronouncements.

But we’ll certainly touch on some of these areas as we document the progress of the project over the coming months, exploring some maps of the global market as they are released, and also diving into the ethics of researching the darknet; so stay tuned!

Until then, Martin Dittus can be found at:

Twitter: @dekstop

Follow the darknet project at:

Twitter: @OiiDarknet

Cyberbullying is far less prevalent than offline bullying, but still needs addressing

Schools and parents play an important role in educating children about cyberbullying. Credit: Pasco County Schools (Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0).

Bullying is a major public health problem, with systematic reviews supporting an association between adolescent bullying and poor mental wellbeing outcomes. In their Lancet article “Cyberbullying and adolescent well-being in England: a population-based cross sectional study”, Andrew Przybylski and Lucy Bowes report the largest study to date on the prevalence of traditional and cyberbullying, based on a nationally representative sample of 120,115 adolescents in England.

While nearly a third of the adolescent respondents reported experiencing significant bullying in the past few months, cyberbullying was much less common, with around five percent of respondents reporting recent significant experiences. Both traditional and cyberbullying were independently associated with lower mental well-being, but only the relation between traditional bullying and well-being was robust. This supports the view that cyberbullying is unlikely to provide a source for new victims, but rather presents an avenue for further victimisation of those already suffering from traditional forms of bullying.

This stands in stark contrast to media reports and the popular perception that young people are now more likely to be victims of cyberbullying than traditional forms. The results also suggest that interventions to address cyberbullying will only be effective if they also consider the dynamics of traditional forms of bullying, supporting the urgent need for evidence-based interventions that target both forms of bullying in adolescence. That said, as social media and Internet connectivity become an increasingly intrinsic part of modern childhood, initiatives fostering resilience in online and every day contexts will be required.

We caught up with Andy and Lucy to discuss their findings:

Ed.: You say that given “the rise in the use of mobile and online technologies among young people, an up to date estimation of the current prevalence of cyberbullying in the UK is needed.” Having undertaken that—what are your initial thoughts on the results?

Andy: I think a really compelling thing we learned in this project is that researchers and policymakers have to think very carefully about what constitutes a meaningful degree of bullying or cyberbullying. Many of the studies and reports we reviewed were really loose on details here while a smaller core of work was precise and informative. When we started our study it was difficult to sort through the noise but we settled on a solid standard—at least two or three experiences of bullying in the past month—to base our prevalence numbers and statistical models on.

Lucy: One of the issues here is that studies often use different measures, so it is hard to compare like for like, but in general our study supports other recent studies indicating that relatively few adolescents report being cyberbullied only—one study by Dieter Wolke and colleagues that collected between 2014-2015 found that whilst 29% of school students reported being bullied, only 1% of 11-16 year olds reported only cyberbullying. Whilst that study was only in a handful of schools in one part of England, the findings are strikingly similar to our own. In general then it seems that rates of cyberbullying are not increasing dramatically; though it is concerning that prevalence rates of both forms of bullying—particularly traditional bullying—have remained unacceptably high.

Ed.: Is there a policy distinction drawn between “bullying” (i.e. young people) and “harassment” (i.e. the rest of us, including in the workplace)—and also between “bullying” and “cyber-bullying”? These are all basically the same thing, aren’t they—why distinguish?

Lucy: I think this is a good point; people do refer to ‘bullying’ in the workplace as well. Bullying, at its core, is defined as intentional, repeated aggression targeted against a person who is less able to defend him or herself—for example, a younger or more vulnerable person. Cyberbullying has the additional definition of occurring only in an online format—but I agree that this is the same action or behaviour, just taking place in a different context. Whilst in practice bullying and harassment have very similar meanings and may be used interchangeably, harassment is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010, whilst bullying actually isn’t a legal term at all. However certain acts of bullying could be considered harassment and therefore be prosecuted. I think this really just reflects the fact that we often ‘carve up’ human behaviour and experience according to our different policies, practices and research fields—when in reality they are not so distinct.

Ed.: I suppose online bullying of young people might be more difficult to deal with, given it can occur under the radar, and in social spaces that might not easily admit adults (though conversely, leave actual evidence, if reported). Why do you think there’s a moral panic about cyberbullying — is it just newspapers selling copy, or does it say something interesting about the Internet as a medium — a space that’s both very open and very closed? And does any of this hysteria affect actual policy?

Andy: I think our concern arises from the uncertainty and unfamiliarity people have about the possibilities the Internet provides. Because it is full of potential—for good and ill—and is always changing, wild claims about it capture our imagination and fears. That said, the panic absolutely does affect policy and parenting discussions in the UK. Statistics and figures coming from pressure groups and well-meaning charities do put the prevalence of cyberbullying at terrifying, and unrealistically high, levels. This certainly has affected the way parents see things. Policy makers tend to seize on the worse case scenario and interpret things through this lens. Unfortunately this can be a distraction when there are known health and behavioural challenges facing young people.

Lucy: For me, I think we do tend to panic and highlight the negative impacts of the online world—often at the expense of the many positive impacts. That said, there was—and remains—a worry that cyberbullying could have the potential to be more widespread, and to be more difficult to resolve. The perpetrator’s identity may be unknown, may follow the child home from school, and may be persistent—in that it may be difficult to remove hurtful comments or photos from the Internet. It is reassuring that our findings, as well as others’, suggest that cyberbullying may not be associated with as great an impact on well-being as people have suggested.

Ed.: Obviously something as deeply complex and social as bullying requires a complex, multivalent response: but that said, do you think there are any low-hanging interventions that might help address online bullying, like age verification, reporting tools, more information in online spaces about available help, more discussion of it as a problem (etc.)?

Andy: No easy ones. Understanding that cyber- and traditional bullying aren’t dissimilar, parental engagement and keeping lines of communication open are key. This means parents should learn about the technology their young people are using, and that kids should know they’re safe disclosing when something scary or distressing eventually happens.

Lucy: Bullying is certainly complex; school-based interventions that have been successful in reducing more traditional forms of bullying have tended to involve those students who are not directly involved but who act as ‘bystanders’—encouraging them to take a more active stance against bullying rather than remaining silent and implicitly suggesting that it is acceptable. There are online equivalents being developed, and greater education that discourages people (both children and adults) from sharing negative images or words, or encourages them to actively ‘dislike’ such negative posts show promise. I also think it’s important that targeted advice and support for those directly affected is provided.

Ed.: Who’s seen as the primary body responsible for dealing with bullying online: is it schools? NGOs? Or the platform owners who actually (if not-intentionally) host this abuse? And does this topic bump up against wider current concerns about (e.g.) the moral responsibilities of social media companies?

Andy: There is no single body that takes responsibility for this for young people. Some charities and government agencies, like the Child Exploitation and Online Protection command (CEOP) are doing great work. They provide a forum for information for parents and professionals for kids that is stratified by age, and easy-to-complete forms that young people or carers can use to get help. Most industry-based solutions require users to report and flag offensive content and they’re pretty far behind the ball on this because we don’t know what works and what doesn’t. At present cyberbullying consultants occupy the space and the services they provide are of dubious empirical value. If industry and the government want to improve things on this front they need to make direct investments in supporting robust, open, basic scientific research into cyberbulling and trials of promising intervention approaches.

Lucy: There was an interesting discussion by the NSPCC about this recently, and it seems that people are very mixed in their opinions—some would also say parents play an important role, as well as Government. I think this reflects the fact that cyberbullying is a complex social issue. It is important that social media companies are aware, and work with government, NGOs and young people to safeguard against harm (as many are doing), but equally schools and parents play an important role in educating children about cyberbullying—how to stay safe, how to play an active role in reducing cyberbullying, and who to turn to if children are experiencing cyberbullying.

Ed.: You mention various limitations to the study; what further evidence do you think we need, in order to more completely understand this issue, and support good interventions?

Lucy: I think we need to know more about how to support children directly affected by bullying, and more work is needed in developing effective interventions for cyberbullying. There are some very good school-based interventions with a strong evidence base to suggest that they reduce the prevalence of at least traditional forms of bullying, but they are not being widely implemented in the UK, and this is a missed opportunity.

Andy: I agree—a focus on flashy cyberbullying headlines presents the real risk of distracting us from developing and implementing evidence-based interventions. The Internet cannot be turned off and there are no simple solutions.

Ed.: You say the UK is ranked 20th of 27 EU countries on the mental well-being index, and also note the link between well-being and productivity. Do you think there’s enough discussion and effort being put into well-being, generally? And is there even a general public understanding of what “well-being” encompasses?

Lucy: I think the public understanding of well-being is probably pretty close to the research definition—people have a good sense that this involves more than not having psychological difficulty for example, and that it refers to friendships, relationships, and doing well; one’s overall quality of life. Both research and policy is placing more of an emphasis on well-being—in part because large international studies have suggested that the UK may score particularly poorly on measures of well-being. This is very important if we are going to raise standards and improve people’s quality of life.

Read the full article: Andrew Przybylski and Lucy Bowes (2017) Cyberbullying and adolescent well-being in England: a population-based cross sectional study. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health.

Andrew Przybylski is an experimental psychologist based at the Oxford Internet Institute. His research focuses on applying motivational theory to understand the universal aspects of video games and social media that draw people in, the role of game structure and content on human aggression, and the factors that lead to successful versus unsuccessful self-regulation of gaming contexts and social media use. @ShuhBillSkee

Lucy Bowes is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology. Her research focuses on the impact of early life stress on psychological and behavioural development, integrating social epidemiology, developmental psychology and behavioural genetics to understand the complex genetic and environmental influences that promote resilience to victimization and early life stress. @DrLucyBowes

Andy Przybylski and Lucy Bowes were talking to the Oxford Internet Institute’s Managing Editor, David Sutcliffe.

Does Twitter now set the news agenda?

To what extent is the traditional media influenced by politicians’ Twitter posts? [Original tweet]

The information provided in the traditional media is of fundamental importance for the policy-making process, signalling which issues are gaining traction, which are falling out of favour, and introducing entirely new problems for the public to digest. But the monopoly of the traditional media as a vehicle for disseminating information about the policy agenda is being superseded by social media, with Twitter in particular used by politicians to influence traditional news content.

In their Policy & Internet article, “Politicians and the Policy Agenda: Does Use of Twitter by the U.S. Congress Direct New York Times Content?” Matthew A. Shapiro and Libby Hemphill examine the extent to which he traditional media is influenced by politicians’ Twitter posts. They draw on indexing theory, which states that media coverage and framing of key policy issues will tend to track elite debate. To understand why the newspaper covers an issue and predict the daily New York Times content, it is modelled as a function of all of the previous day’s policy issue areas as well as all of the previous day’s Twitter posts about all of the policy issue areas by Democrats and Republicans.

They ask to what extent are the agenda-setting efforts of members of Congress acknowledged by the traditional media; what, if any, the advantages are for one party over the other, measured by the traditional media’s increased attention; and whether there is any variance across different policy issue areas? They find that Twitter is a legitimate political communication vehicle for US officials, that journalists consider Twitter when crafting their coverage, and that Twitter-based announcements by members of Congress are a valid substitute for the traditional communiqué in journalism, particularly for issues related to immigration and marginalised groups, and issues related to the economy and health care.

We caught up with the authors to discuss their findings:

Ed.: Can you give a quick outline of media indexing theory? Does it basically say that the press reports whatever the elite are talking about? (i.e. that press coverage can be thought of as a simple index, which tracks the many conversations that make up elite debate).

Matthew: Indexing theory, in brief, states that the content of media reports reflects the degree to which elites—politicians and leaders in government in particular—are in agreement or disagreement. The greater the level of agreement or consensus among elites, the less news there is to report in terms of elite conflict. This is not to say that a consensus among elites is not newsworthy; indexing theory conveys how media reporting is a function of the multiple voices that exist when there is elite debate.

Ed.: You say Twitter seemed a valid measure of news indexing (i.e. coverage) for at least some topics. Could it be that the NYT isn’t following Twitter so much as Twitter (and the NYT) are both following something else, i.e. floor debates, releases, etc.?

Matthew: We can’t test for whether the NYT is following Twitter rather than floor debates/press releases without collecting data for the latter. Perhaps If the House and Senate Press Galleries are indexing the news based on House and Senate debates, and if Twitter posts by members of Congress reflect the House and Senate discussions, we could still argue that Twitter remains significant because there are no limits on the amount of discussion—i.e. the boundaries of the House and Senate floors no longer exist—and the media are increasingly reliant on politicians’ use of Twitter to communicate to the press. In any case, the existing research shows that journalists are increasingly relying on Twitter posts for updates from elites.

Ed.: I’m guessing that indexing theory only really works for non-partisan media that follow elite debates, like the NYT? Or does it also work for tabloids? And what about things like Breitbart (and its ilk) which I’m guessing appeals explicitly to a populist audience, rather than particularly caring what the elite are talking about?

Matthew: If a study similar to our was done to examine the indexing tendencies of tabloids, Breitbart, or a similar type of media source, the first step would be to determine what is being discussed regularly in these outlets. Assuming, for example, that there isn’t much discussion about marginalised groups in Breitbart, in the context of indexing theory it would not be relevant to examine the pool of congressional Twitter posts mentioning marginalised groups. Those posts are effectively off of Breitbart’s radar. But, generally, indexing theory breaks down if partisanship and bias drive the reporting.

Ed.: Is there any sense in which Trump’s “Twitter diplomacy” has overturned or rendered moot the recent literature on political uses of Twitter? We now have a case where a single (personal) Twitter account can upset the stock market — how does one theorise that?

Matthew: In terms of indexing theory, we could argue that Trump’s Twitter posts themselves generate a response from Democrats and Republicans in Congress and thus muddy the waters by conflating policy issues with other issues like his personality, ties to Russia, his fact-checking problems, etc. This is well beyond our focus in the article, but we speculate that Trump’s early-dawn use of Twitter is primarily for marketing, damage control, and deflection. There are really many different ways to study this phenomenon. One could, for example, examine the function of unfiltered news from politician to the public and compare it with the news that is simultaneously reported in the media. We would also be interested in understanding why Trump and politicians like Trump frame their Twitter posts the way they do, what effect these posts have on their devoted followers as well as their fence-sitting followers, and how this mobilises Congress both online (i.e. on Twitter) and when discussing and voting on policy options on the Senate and House floors. These areas of research would all build upon rather than render moot the extant literature on the political uses of Twitter.

Ed.: Following on: how does Indexing theory deal with Trump’s populism (i.e. avowedly anti-Washington position), hatred and contempt of the media, and apparent aim of bypassing the mainstream press wherever possible: even ditching the press pool and favouring populist outlets over the NYT in press gaggles. Or is the media bigger than the President .. will indexing theory survive Trump?

Matthew: Indexing theory will of course survive Trump. What we are witnessing in the media is an inability, however, to limit gaper’s block in the sense that the media focus on the more inflammatory and controversial aspects of Trump’s Twitter posts – unfortunately on a daily basis – rather than reporting the policy implications. The media have to report what is news, and Presidential Twitter posts are now newsworthy, but we would argue that we are reaching a point where anything but the meat of the policy implications must be effectively filtered. Until we reach a point where the NYT ignores the inflammatory nature of Trumps Twitter posts, it will be challenging to test indexing theory in the context of the policy agenda setting process.

Ed.: There are recent examples (Brexit, Trump) of the media apparently getting things wrong because they were following the elites and not “the forgotten” (or deplorable) .. who then voted in droves. Is there any sense in the media industry that it needs to rethink things a bit — i.e. that maybe the elite is not always going to be in control of events, or even be an accurate bellwether?

Matthew: This question highlights an omission from our article, namely that indexing theory marginalizes the role of non-elite voices. We agree that the media could do a better job reporting on certain things; for instance, relying extensively on weather vanes of public opinion that do not account for inaccurate self-reporting (i.e. people not accurately representing themselves when being polled about their support for Trump, Brexit, etc.) or understanding why disenfranchised voters might opt to stay home on Election Day. When it comes to setting the policy agenda, which is the focus of our article, we stand by indexing theory given our assumption that the policy process itself is typically directed from those holding power. On that point, and regardless of whether it is normatively appropriate, elites are accurate bellwethers of the policy agenda.

Read the full article: Shapiro, M.A. and Hemphill, L. (2017) Politicians and the Policy Agenda: Does Use of Twitter by the U.S. Congress Direct New York Times Content? Policy & Internet 9 (1) doi:10.1002/poi3.120.

Matthew A. Shapiro and Libby Hemphill were talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

We should pay more attention to the role of gender in Islamist radicalisation

The process of radicalisation still lacks clarity, and relies on theorising that is rife with assumptions. Image of flowers left at London Bridge in June 2017, by Gerry Popplestone (Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

One of the key current UK security issues is how to deal with British citizens returning from participation in ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Most of the hundreds fighting with ISIS were men and youths. But, dozens of British women and girls also travelled to join Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. For some, online recruitment appeared to be an important part of their radicalisation, and many took to the Internet to praise life in the new Caliphate once they arrived there. These cases raised concerns about female radicalisation online, and put the issue of women, terrorism, and radicalisation firmly on the policy agenda. This was not the first time such fears had been raised. In 2010, the university student Roshonara Choudhry stabbed her Member of Parliament, after watching YouTube videos of the radical cleric Anwar Al Awlaki. She is the first and only British woman so far convicted of a violent Islamist attack.

In her Policy & Internet article “The Case of Roshonara Choudhry: Implications for Theory on Online Radicalisation, ISIS Women, and the Gendered Jihad”, Elizabeth Pearson explores how gender might have factored in Roshonara’s radicalisation, in order to present an alternative to existing theoretical explanations. First, in precluding her from a real-world engagement with Islamism on her terms, gender limitations in the physical world might have pushed her to the Internet. Here, a lack of religious knowledge made her particularly vulnerable to extremist ideology; a susceptibility only increased through Internet socialisation and to an active radical milieu. Finally, it might have created a dissonance between her online and multiple “real” gendered identities, resulting in violence.

As yet, there is no adequately proven link between online material and violent acts. But given the current reliance of terrorism research on the online environment, and the reliance of policy on terrorism research, the relationship between the virtual and offline domains must be better understood. So too must the process of “radicalisation”—which still lacks clarity, and relies on theorising that is rife with assumptions. Whatever the challenges, understanding how men and women become violent radicals, and the differences there might be between them, has never been more important.

We caught up with Elizabeth to discuss her findings:

Ed.: You note “the Internet has become increasingly attractive to many women extremists in recent years”—do these extremist views tend to be found on (general) social media or on dedicated websites? Presumably these sites are discoverable via fairly basic search?

Elizabeth: Yes and no. Much content is easily found online. ISIS has been very good at ‘colonising’ popular social media platforms with supporters, and in particular, Twitter was for a period the dominant site. It was ideal as it allowed ISIS fans to find one another, share material, and build networks and communities of support. In the past 18 months Twitter has made a concerted—and largely successful—effort to ‘take down’ or suspend accounts. This may simply have pushed support elsewhere. We know that Telegram is now an important channel for information, for example. Private groups, the dark web and hidden net resources exist alongside open source material on sites such as Facebook, familiar to everyone. Given the illegality of much of this content, there has been huge pressure on companies to respond. Still there is criticism from bodies such as the Home Affairs Select Committee that they are not responding quickly or efficiently enough.

Ed.: This case seemed to represent a collision not just of “violent jihadists vs the West” but also “Salafi-Jihadists vs women” (as well as “Western assumptions of Muslim assumptions of acceptable roles for women”) .. were these the main tensions at play here?

Elizabeth: One of the key aspects of Roshonara’s violence was that it was transgressive. Violent Jihadist groups tend towards conservatism regarding female roles. Although there is no theological reason why women should not participate in the defensive Jihad, they are not encouraged to do so. ISIS has worked hard in its propaganda to keep female roles domestic – yet ideologically so. Roshonara appears to have absorbed Al Awlaki’s messaging regarding the injustices faced by Muslims, but only acted when she saw a video by Azzam, a very key scholar for Al Qaeda supporters, which she understood as justifying female violence. Hatred of western foreign policy, and support for intervention in Iraq appeared to be the motivation for her attack; a belief that women could also fight is what prompted her to carry this out herself.

Ed.: Does this struggle tend to be seen as a political struggle about land and nationhood; or a supranational religious struggle — or both? (with the added complication of Isis conflating nation and religion)

Elizabeth: Nobody yet understands exactly why people ‘radicalise’. It’s almost impossible to profile violent radicals beyond saying they tend to be mainly male—and as we know, that is not a hard and fast rule either. What we can say is that there are complex factors, and a variety of recurrent themes cited by violent actors, and found in propaganda and messaging. One narrative is about political struggle on behalf of Muslims, who face injustice, particularly from the West. ISIS has made this struggle about the domination of land and nationhood, a development of Al Qaeda’s message. Religion is also important to this. Despite different levels of knowledge of Islam, supporters of the violent Jihad share commitment to battle as justified in the Quran. They believe that Islam is the way, the only way, and they find in their faith an answer to global issues, and whatever is happening personally to them. It is not possible, in my view, to ignore the religious component declared in this struggle. But there are other factors too. That’s what makes this so difficult and complex.

Ed.: You say that Roshonara “did not follow the path of radicalization set out in theory”. How so? But also .. how important and grounded is this “theory” in the practice of counter-radicalisation? And what do exceptions like Roshonara Choudhry signify?

Elizabeth: Theory—based on empirical evidence—suggests that violence is a male preserve. Violent Jihadist groups also generally restrict their violence to men, and men only. Theory also tells us that actors rarely carry out violence alone. Belonging is an important part of the violent Jihad and ‘entrance’ to violence is generally through people you know, friends, family, acquaintances. Even where we have seen young women for example travel to join ISIS, this has tended to be facilitated through friends, or online contacts, or family. Roshanara as a female acting alone in this time before ISIS is therefore something quite unusual. She signifies—through her somewhat unique case—just how transgressive female violence is, and just how unusual solitary action is. She also throws into question the role of the internet. The internet alone is not usually sufficient for radicalisation; offline contacts matter. In her case there remain some questions of what other contacts may have influenced her violence.

I’m not entirely sure how joined up counter-radicalisation practices and radicalisation theory are. The Prevent strategy aside, there are many different approaches, in the UK alone. The most successful that I have seen are due to committed individuals who know the communities they are based in and are trusted by them. It is relationships that seem to count, above all else.

Ed.: Do you think her case is an interesting outlier (a “lone wolf” as people commented at the time), or do you think there’s a need for more attention to be paid to gender (and women) in this area, either as potential threats, or solutions?

Elizabeth: Roshonara is a young woman, still in jail for her crime. As I wrote this piece I thought of her as a student at King’s College London, as I am, and I found it therefore all the more affecting that she did what she did. There is a connection through that shared space. So it’s important for me to think of her in human terms, in terms of what her life was like, who her friends were, what her preoccupations were and how she managed, or did not manage, her academic success, her transition to a different identity from the one her parents came from. She is interesting to me because of this, and because she is an outlier. She is an outlier who reveals certain truths about what gender means in the violent Jihad. That means women, yes, but also men, ideas about masculinity, male and female roles. I don’t think we should think of young Muslim people as either ‘threats’ or ‘solutions’. These are not the only possibilities. We should think about society, and how gender works within it, and within particular communities within it.

Ed.: And is gender specifically “relevant” to consider when it comes to Islamic radicalisation, or do you see similar gender dynamics across all forms of political and religious extremism?

Elizabeth: My current PhD research considers the relationship between the violent Jihad and the counter-Jihad—cumulative extremism. To me, gender matters in all study. It’s not really anything special or extra, it’s just a recognition that if you are looking at groups you need to take into account the different ways that men and women are affected. To me that seems quite basic, because otherwise you are not really seeing a whole picture. Conservative gender dynamics are certainly also at work in some nationalist groups. The protection of women, the function of women as representative of the honour or dishonour of a group or nation—these matter to groups and ideologies beyond the violent Jihad. However, the counter-Jihad is in other ways progressive, for example promoting narratives of protecting gay rights as well as women’s rights. So women for both need to be protected—but what they need to be protected from and how differs for each. What is important is that the role of women, and of gender, matters in consideration of any ‘extremism’, and indeed in politics more broadly.

Ed.: You’re currently doing research on Boko Haram — are you also looking at gender? And are there any commonalities with the British context you examined in this article?

Elizabeth: Boko Haram interests me because of the ways in which it has transgressed some of the most fundamental gender norms of the Jihad. Since 2014 they have carried out hundreds of suicide attacks using women and girls. This is highly unusual and in fact unprecedented in terms of numbers. How this impacts on their relationship with the international Jihad, and since 2015, ISIS, to whom their leader gave a pledge of allegiance is something I have been thinking about.

There are many local aspects of the Nigerian conflict that do not translate—poverty, the terrain, oral traditions of preaching, human rights violations, Sharia in northern Nigerian states, forced recruitment.. In gender terms however, the role of women, the honour/dishonour of women, and gender-based violence translate across contexts. In particular, women are frequently instrumentalised by movements for a greater cause. Perhaps the greatest similarity is the resistance to the imposition of Western norms, including gender norms, free-mixing between men and women and gender equality. This is a recurrent theme for violent Jihadists and their supporters across geography. They wish to protect the way of life they understand in the Quran, as they believe this is the word of God, and the only true word, superseding all man-made law.

Read the full article: Pearson, E. (2016) The Case of Roshonara Choudhry: Implications for Theory on Online Radicalisation, ISIS Women, and the Gendered Jihad. Policy & Internet 8 (1) doi:10.1002/poi3.101.

Elizabeth Pearson was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Our knowledge of how automated agents interact is rather poor (and that could be a problem)

Wikipedia uses editing bots to clean articles: but what happens when their interactions go bad? Image of “Nomade”, a sculpture in downtown Des Moines by Jason Mrachina (Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Recent years have seen a huge increase in the number of bots online—including search engine Web crawlers, online customer service chat bots, social media spambots, and content-editing bots in online collaborative communities like Wikipedia. (Bots are important contributors to Wikipedia, completing about 15% of all Wikipedia edits in 2014 overall, and more than 50% in certain language editions.)

While the online world has turned into an ecosystem of bots (by which we mean computer scripts that automatically handle repetitive and mundane tasks), our knowledge of how these automated agents interact with each other is rather poor. But being automata without capacity for emotions, meaning-making, creativity, or sociality, we might expect bot interactions to be relatively predictable and uneventful.

In their PLOS ONE article “Even good bots fight: The case of Wikipedia“, Milena Tsvetkova, Ruth García-Gavilanes, Luciano Floridi, and Taha Yasseri analyse the interactions between bots that edit articles on Wikipedia. They track the extent to which bots undid each other’s edits over the period 2001–2010, model how pairs of bots interact over time, and identify different types of interaction outcomes. Although Wikipedia bots are intended to support the encyclopaedia—identifying and undoing vandalism, enforcing bans, checking spelling, creating inter-language links, importing content automatically, mining data, identifying copyright violations, greeting newcomers, etc.—the authors find they often undid each other’s edits, with these sterile “fights” sometimes continuing for years.

They suggest that even relatively “dumb” bots may give rise to complex interactions, carrying important implications for Artificial Intelligence research. Understanding these bot-bot interactions will be crucial for managing social media, providing adequate cyber-security, and designing autonomous vehicles (that don’t crash).

We caught up with Taha Yasseri and Luciano Floridi to discuss the implications of the findings:

Ed.: Is there any particular difference between the way individual bots interact (and maybe get bogged down in conflict), and lines of vast and complex code interacting badly, or having unforeseen results (e.g. flash-crashes in automated trading): i.e. is this just (another) example of us not always being able to anticipate how code interacts in the wild?

Taha: There are similarities and differences. The most notable difference is that here bots are not competing. They all work based on same rules and more importantly to achieve the same goal that is to increase the quality of the Encyclopaedia. Considering these features, the rather antagonistic interactions between the bots come as a surprise.

Ed.: Wikipedia have said that they know about it, and that it’s a minor problem. But I suppose Wikipedia presents a nice, open, benevolent system to make a start on examining and understanding bot interactions. What other bot-systems are you aware of, or that you could have looked at?

Taha: In terms of content generating bots, Twitter bots have turned out to be very important in terms of online propaganda. The crawlers bots that collect information from social media or the web (such as personal information or email addresses) are also being heavily deployed. In fact we have come up with a first typology of the Internet bots based on their type of action and their intentions (benevolent vs malevolent), that is presented in the article.

Ed.: You’ve also done work on human collaborations (e.g. in the citizen science projects of the Zooniverse)—is there any work comparing human collaborations with bot collaborations—or even examining human-bot collaborations and interactions?

Taha: In the present work we do compare bot-bot interactions with human-human interactions to observe similarities and differences. The most striking difference is in the dynamics of negative interactions. While human conflicts heat up very quickly and then disappear after a while, bots undoing each others’ contribution comes as a steady flow which might persist over years. In the HUMANE project, we discuss the co-existence of humans and machines in the digital world from a theoretical point of view and there we discuss such ecosystems in details.

Ed.: Humans obviously interact badly, fairly often (despite being a social species) why should we be particularly worried about how bots interact with each other, given humans seem to expect and cope with social inefficiency, annoyances, conflict and break-down? Isn’t this just more of the same?

Luciano: The fact that bots can be as bad as humans is far from reassuring. The fact that this happens even when they are programmed to collaborate is more disconcerting than what happens among humans when these compete, or fight each other. Here are very elementary mechanisms that through simple interactions generate messy and conflictual outcomes. One may hope this is not evidence of what may happen when more complex systems and interactions are in question. The lesson I learnt from all this is that without rules or some kind of normative framework that promote collaboration, not even good mechanisms ensure a good outcome.

Read the full article: Tsvetkova M, Garcia-Gavilanes R, Floridi, L, Yasseri T (2017) Even good bots fight: The case of Wikipedia. PLoS ONE 12(2): e0171774. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0171774

Taha Yasseri and Luciano Floridi were talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Social media and the battle for perceptions of the U.S.–Mexico border

The U.S.–Mexico border to be the location of an annual legal flow of economic trade of $300 billion each year, the frontier of 100 years of peaceful coexistence between two countries, and the point of integration for the U.S.–Mexico relationship. Image: BBC World Service (Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

The US-Mexican border region is home to approximately 12 million people, and is the most-crossed international border in the world. Unlike the current physical border, the image people hold of “the border” is not firmly established, and can be modified. One way is via narratives (or stories), which are a powerful tool for gaining support for public policies. Politicians’ narratives about the border have historically been perpetuated by the traditional media, particularly when this allows them to publish sensational and attention grabbing news stories.

However, new social media, including YouTube, provide opportunities for less-mainstream narratives of cooperation. In their Policy & Internet article “Do New Media Support New Policy Narratives? The Social Construction of the U.S.–Mexico Border on YouTube”, Donna L. Lybecker, Mark K. McBeth, Maria A. Husmann, and Nicholas Pelikan find that YouTube videos about the U.S.–Mexico border focus (perhaps unsurprisingly) on mainstream, divisive issues such as security and violence, immigration, and drugs. However, the videos appear to construct more favourable perspectives of the border region than traditional media, with around half constructing a sympathetic view of the border, and the people associated with it.

The common perceptions of the border generally take two distinct forms. One holds the U.S.–Mexico border to be the location of an annual legal flow of economic trade of $300 billion each year, a line which millions of people legally cross annually, the frontier of 100 years of peaceful coexistence between two countries, and the point of integration for the U.S.–Mexico relationship. An alternative perspective (particularly common since 9/11) focuses less on economic trade and legal crossing and more on undocumented immigration, violence and drug wars, and a U.S.-centric view of “us versus them”.

In order to garner public support for their “solutions” to these issues, politicians often define the border using one of these perspectives. Acceptance of the first view might well allow policymakers to find cooperative solutions to joint problems. Acceptance of the second creates a policy problem that is more value-laden than empirically based and that creates distrust and polarisation among stakeholders and between the countries. The U.S.–Mexico border is clearly a complex region encompassing both positives and negatives — but understanding these narratives could have a real-world impact on policy along the border; possibly creating the greater cooperation we need to solve many of the urgent problems faced by border communities.

We caught up with the authors to discuss their findings:

Ed.: Who created the videos you studied: were they created by the public, or were they also produced by perhaps more progressive media outlets? i.e. were you able to disentangle the effect of the media in terms of these narratives?

Mark / Donna: For this study, we studied YouTube videos, using the “relevance” filter. Thus, the videos were ordered by most related to our topic and by most frequently viewed. With this selection method we captured videos produced by a variety of sources; some that contained embedded videos from mainstream media, others created by non-profit groups and public television groups, but also videos produced by interested citizens or private groups. The non-profit and media groups more often discuss the beneficial elements of the border (trade, shared environmental protection, etc.), while individual citizens or groups tended to post the more emotional and narrative-driven videos more likely to construct the border residents in a non-deserving sense.

Ed.: How influential do you think these videos are? In a world of extreme media concentration (where even the US President seems to get his news from Fox headlines and the 42 people he follows on Twitter), how significant is “home grown” content; which after all may have better, or at least more locally-representative, information than certain parts of the national media?

Mark / Donna: Today’s extreme media world supplies us with constant and fast-moving news. YouTube is part of the media mix, frequently mentioned as the second largest search engine on the web, and as such is influential. Media sources report that a large number of diverse people use YouTube, thus the videos encompass a broad swath of international, domestic and local issues. That said, as with most news sources today, some individuals gravitate to the stories that represent their point of view, and YouTube makes it possible for individuals to do just this. In other words, if a person perceives the US-Mexico border as a horrible place, they can use key words to search YouTube videos that represent that point of view.

However, we believe YouTube to be more influential than some other sources precisely because it encompasses diversity, thus, even when searching using specific terms, there will likely be a few videos included in search results that provide a different point of view. Furthermore, we did find some local, “home grown” content included in search results, again adding to the diversity presented to the individual watching YouTube. Although, we found less homegrown content than initially expected. Overall, there is selectivity bias with YouTube, like any type of media, but YouTube’s greater diversity of postings and viewers and broad distribution may increase both exposure and influence.

Ed.: Your article was published pre-Trump. How do you think things might have changed post-election, particularly given the uncertainty over “the wall” and NAFTA—and Trump’s rather strident narratives about each? Is it still a case of “negative traditional media; equivocal social media”?

Mark / Donna: Our guess is that anti-border forces are more prominent on YouTube since Trump’s election and inauguration. Unless there is an organised effort to counter discussion of “the wall” and produce positive constructions of the border, we expect that YouTube videos posted over the past few months lean more toward non-deserving constructions.

Ed.: How significant do you think social media is for news and politics generally, i.e. its influence in this information environment—compared with (say) the mainstream press and party-machines? I guess Trump’s disintermediated tweeting might have turned a few assumptions on their heads, in terms of the relation between news, social media and politics? Or is the media always going to be bigger than Trump / the President?

Mark / Donna: Social media, including YouTube and Twitter, is interactive and thus allows anyone to bypass traditional institutions. President Trump can bypass institutions of government, media institutions, even his own political party and staff and communicate directly with people via Twitter. Of course, there are advantages to that, including hearing views that differ from the “official lines,” but there are also pitfalls, such as minimised editing of comments.

We believe people see both the strengths and the weakness with social media, and thus often read news from both traditional media sources and social media. Traditional media is still powerful and connected to traditional institutions, thus, remains a substantial source of information for many people—although social media numbers are climbing, particularly with the President’s use of Twitter. Overall, both types of media influence politics, although we do not expect future presidents will necessarily emulate President Trump’s use of social media.

Ed.: Another thing we hear a lot about now is “filter bubbles” (and whether or not they’re a thing). YouTube filters viewing suggestions according to what you watch, but still presents a vast range of both good and mad content: how significant do you think YouTube (and the explosion of smartphone video) content is in today’s information / media environment? (And are filter bubbles really a thing?)

Mark / Donna: Yeah, we think that the filter bubbles are real. Again, we think that social media has a lot of potential to provide new information to people (and still does); although currently social media is falling into the same selectivity bias that characterises the traditional media. We encourage our students to use online technology to seek out diverse sources; sources that both mirror their opinions and that oppose their opinions. People in the US can access diverse sources on a daily basis, but they have to be willing to seek out perspectives that differ from their own view, perspectives other than their favoured news source.

The key is getting individuals to want to challenge themselves and to be open to cognitive dissonance as they read or watch material that differs from their belief systems. Technology is advanced but humans still suffer the cognitive limitations from which they have always suffered. The political system in the US, and likely other places, encourages it. The key is for individuals to be willing to listen to views unlike their own.

Read the full article: Lybecker, D.L., McBeth, M.K., Husmann, M.A, and Pelikan, N. (2015) Do New Media Support New Policy Narratives? The Social Construction of the U.S.–Mexico Border on YouTube. Policy & Internet 7 (4). DOI: 10.1002/poi3.94.

Mark McBeth and Donna Lybecker were talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Using Open Government Data to predict sense of local community

Advocates hope that opening government data will increase government transparency, catalyse economic growth, address social and environmental challenges. Image by the UK’s Open Data Institute.

Community-based approaches are widely employed in programmes that monitor and promote socioeconomic development. And building the “capacity” of a community—i.e. the ability of people to act individually or collectively to benefit the community—is key to these approaches. The various definitions of community capacity all agree that it comprises a number of dimensions—including opportunities and skills development, resource mobilisation, leadership, participatory decision making, etc.—all of which can be measured in order to understand and monitor the implementation of community-based policy. However, measuring these dimensions (typically using surveys) is time consuming and expensive, and the absence of such measurements is reflected in a greater focus in the literature on describing the process of community capacity building, rather than on describing how it’s actually measured.

A cheaper way to measure these dimensions, for example by applying predictive algorithms to existing secondary data like socioeconomic characteristics, socio-demographics, and condition of housing stock, would certainly help policy makers gain a better understanding of local communities. In their Policy & Internet article “Predicting Sense of Community and Participation by Applying Machine Learning to Open Government Data“, Alessandro Piscopo, Ronald Siebes, and Lynda Hardman employ a machine-learning technique (“Random Forests”) to evaluate an estimate of community capacity derived from open government data, and determine the most important predictive variables.

The resulting models were found to be more accurate than those based on traditional statistics, demonstrating the feasibility of the Random Forests technique for this purpose—being accurate, able to deal with small data sets and nonlinear data, and providing information about how each variable in the dataset contributes to predictive accuracy.

We caught up with the authors to discuss their findings:

Ed.: Just briefly: how did you do the study? Were you essentially trying to find which combinations of variables available in Open Government Data predicted “sense of community and participation” as already measured by surveys?

Authors: Our research stemmed from an observation of the measures of social characteristics available. These are generally obtained through expensive surveys, so we asked ourselves “how could we generate them in a more economic and efficient way?” In recent years, the UK government has openly released a wealth of datasets, which could be used to provide information for other purposes—in our case, providing measures of sense of community and participation—than those for which they had been created. We started our work by consulting papers from the social science domain, to understand which factors were associated to sense of community and participation. Afterwards, we matched the factors that were most commonly mentioned in the literature with “actual” variables found in UK Open Government Data sources.

Ed.: You say “the most determinant variables in our models were only partially in agreement with the most influential factors for sense of community and participation according to the social science literature”—which were they, and how do you account for the discrepancy?

Authors: We observed two types of discrepancy. The first was the case of variables that had roughly the same level of importance in our models and in others previously developed, but with a different rank. For instance, median age was by far the most determinant variable in our model for sense of community. This variable was not ranked among the top five variables in the literature, although it was listed among the significant variables.

The second type of discrepancy regarded variables which were highly important in our models and not influential in others, or vice versa. An example is the socioeconomic status of residents of a neighbourhood, which appeared to have no effect on participation in prior studies, but was the top-ranking variable in our participation model (operationalised as the number of people in intermediate occupation).

We believe that there are multiple explanations for these phenomena, all of which deserve further investigation. First, highly determinant predictors in conventional statistical models have been proven to have little or no importance in ensemble algorithms, such as the one we used [1]. Second, factors influencing sense of community and civic participation may vary according to the context (e.g. different countries; see [3] about sense of community in China for an example). Finally, different methods may measure different aspects related to a socially meaningful concept, leading to different partial explanations.

Ed.: What were the predictors for “lack of community”— i.e. what would a terrible community look like, according to your models?

Authors: Our work did not really focus on finding “good” and “bad” communities. However, we did notice some characteristics that were typical of communities with low sense of community or participation in our dataset. For example, sense of community had a strong negative correlation with work and stores accessibility, with ethnic fragmentation, and with the number of people living in the UK for less than 10 years. On the other hand, it was positively correlated with the age of residents. Participation, instead, was negatively correlated with household composition and occupation of its residents, whilst it had a positive relation with their level of education and the weekly worked hours. Of course, these data would require to be interpreted by a social scientist, in order to properly contextualise and understand them.

Ed.: Do you see these techniques as being more useful to highlight issues and encourage discussion, or actually being used in planning? For example, I can see it might raise issues if machine-learning models “proved” that presence of immigrant populations, or neighbourhoods of mixed economic or ethnic backgrounds, were less cohesive than homogeneous ones (not sure if they are?).

Authors: How machine learning algorithms work is not always clear, even to specialists, and this has led some people to describe them as “black boxes”. We believe that models like those we developed can be extremely useful to challenge existing perspectives based on past data available in the social science literature, e.g. they can be used to confirm or reject previous measures in the literature. Additionally, machine learning models can serve as indicators that can be more frequently consulted: they are cheaper to produce, we can use them more often, and see whether policies have actually worked.

Ed.: It’s great that existing data (in this case, Open Government Data) can be used, rather than collecting new data from scratch. In practice, how easy is it to repurpose this data and build models with it—including in countries where this data may be more difficult to access? And were there any variables you were interested in that you couldn’t access?

Authors: Identifying relevant datasets and getting hold of them was a lengthy process, even in the UK, where plenty of work has been done to make government data openly available. We had to retrieve many datasets from the pages of the government department that produced them, such as the Department for Work and Pensions or the Home Office, because we could not find them through the portal Next to this, the ONS website was another very useful resource, which we used to get census data.

The hurdles encountered in gathering the data led us to recommend the development of methods that would be able to more automatically retrieve datasets from a list of sources and select the ones that provide the best results for predictive models of social dimensions.

Ed.: The OII has done some similar work, estimating the local geography of Internet use across Britain, combining survey and national census data. The researchers said the small-area estimation technique wasn’t being used routinely in government, despite its power. What do you think of their work and discussion, in relation to your own?

Authors: One of the issues we were faced with in our research was the absence of nationwide data about sense of community and participation at a neighbourhood level. The small area estimation approach used by Blank et al., 2017 [2] could provide a suitable solution to the issue. However, the estimates produced by their approach understandably incorporate a certain amount of error. In order to use estimated values as training data for predictive models of community measures it would be key to understand how this error would be propagated to the predicted values.

[1] Berk, R. 2006. “ An Introduction to Ensemble Methods for Data Analysis.” Sociological Methods & Research 34 (3): 263–95.
[2] Blank, G., Graham, M., and Calvino, C. 2017. Local Geographies of Digital Inequality. Social Science Computer Review. DOI: 10.1177/0894439317693332.
[3] Xu, Q., Perkins, D.D. and Chow, J.C.C., 2010. Sense of community, neighboring, and social capital as predictors of local political participation in China. American journal of community psychology, 45(3-4), pp.259-271.

Read the full article: Piscopo, A., Siebes, R. and Hardman, L. (2017) Predicting Sense of Community and Participation by Applying Machine Learning to Open Government Data. Policy & Internet 9 (1) doi:10.1002/poi3.145.

Alessandro Piscopo, Ronald Siebes, and Lynda Hardman were talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Should adverts for social casino games be covered by gambling regulations?

Lord of the Rings slot machines at the Flamingo, image by jenneze (Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0). Unlike gambling played for real money, “social casino games” generally have no monetary prizes.

Social casino gaming, which simulates gambling games on a social platform such as Facebook, is a nascent but rapidly growing industry—social casino game revenues grew 97 percent between 2012 and 2013, with a USD$3.5 billion market size by the end of 2015. Unlike gambling played for real money, social casino games generally have no monetary prizes and are free-to-play, although they may include some optional monetised features. The size of the market and users’ demonstrated interest in gambling-themed activities mean that social casino gamers are an attractive market for many gambling operators, and several large international gambling companies have merged with social casino game operators.

Some operators consider the games to be a source of additional revenue in jurisdictions where online gambling is largely illegal, or a way to attract new customers to a land-based gambling venue. Hybrid models are also emerging, with the potential for tangible rewards for playing social casino games. This merging of gaming and gambling means that many previously established boundaries are becoming blurred, and at many points, the two are indistinguishable.

However, content analysis of game content and advertising can help researchers, industry, and policymakers better understand how the two entertainment forms overlap. In their Policy & Internet article “Gambling Games on Social Platforms: How Do Advertisements for Social Casino Games Target Young Adults?“, Brett Abarbanel, Sally M. Gainsbury, Daniel King, Nerilee Hing, and Paul H. Delfabbro undertake a content analysis of 115 social casino gaming advertisements captured by young adults during their regular Internet use. They find advertisement imagery typically features images likely to appeal to young adults, with message themes including a glamorising and normalisation of gambling. Notably, nearly 90 percent of the advertisements contained no responsible or problem gambling language, despite the gambling-like content.

Gambling advertisements currently face much stricter restrictions on exposure and distribution than do social casino game advertisements: despite the latter containing much gambling-themed content designed to attract consumers. Given the receptivity of young people to messages that encourage gambling, the authors recommend that gaming companies embrace corporate social responsibility standards, including adding warning messages to advertisements for gambling-themed games. They hope that their qualitative research may complement existing quantitative findings, and facilitate discussions about appropriate policies for advertisements for social casino games and other gambling-themed games.

We caught up with Brett to discuss their findings:

Ed.: You say there are no policies related to the advertising of social casino games—why is this? And do you think this will change?

Brett: Social casino games are regulated under general consumer regulations, but there are no specific regulations for these types of games and they do not fall under gambling regulation. Although several gambling regulatory bodies have considered these games, as they do not require payment to play and prizes have no monetary value they are not considered gambling activities. Where the games include branding for gambling companies or are considered advertising, they may fall under relevant legislation. Currently it is up to individual consumers to consider if they are relevant, which includes parents considering their children’s’ use of the games.

Ed.: Is there work on whether these sorts of games actually encourage gambling behaviour? As opposed to gambling behaviour simply pre-existing—i.e. people are either gamblers or not, susceptible or not.

Brett: We have conducted previous research showing that almost one-fifth of adults who played social casino games had gambled for money as a direct result of these games. Research also found that two-thirds of adolescents who had paid money to play social casino games had gambled directly as a result of these games. This builds on other international research suggesting that there is a pathway between games and gambling. For some people, the games are perceived to be a way to ‘try out’ or practice gambling without money and most are motivated to gamble due to the possibility of winning real money. For some people with gambling problems, the games can trigger the urge to gamble, although for others, the games are used as a way to avoid gambling in an attempt to cut back. The pathway is complicated and needs further specific research, including longitudinal studies.

Ed.: Possibly a stupid question: you say social games are a huge and booming market, despite being basically free to play. Where does the revenue come from?

Brett: Not a stupid question at all! When something is free, of course it makes sense to question where the money comes from. The revenue in these business models comes from advertisements and players. The advertisement revenue model is similar to other revenue models, but the player revenue model, which is based largely on micropayments, is a major component of how these games make money. Players can typically play free, and micropayments are voluntary. However, when they run out of free chips, players have to wait to continue to play, or they can purchase additional chips.

The micropayments can also improve game experience, such as to obtain in-game items, as a temporary boost in the game, to add lives/strength/health to an avatar or game session, or unlock the next stage in the game. In social casino games, for example, micropayments can be made to acquire more virtual chips with which to play the slot game. Our research suggests that only a small fraction of the player base actually makes micropayments, and a smaller fraction of these pay very large amounts. Since many of these games are free to play, but one can pay to advance through game in certain ways, they have colloquially been referred to as “freemium” games.

Ed.: I guess social media (like Facebook) are a gift to online gambling companies: i.e. being able to target (and A/B test) their adverts to particular population segments? Are there any studies on the intersection of social media, gambling and behavioural data / economics?

Brett: There is a reasonable cross-over in social casino game players and gamblers – our Australian research found 25% of Internet and 5% of land-based gamblers used social casino games and US studies show around one-third of social casino gamers visit land-based casinos. Many of the most popular and successful social casino games are owned by companies that also operate gambling, in venues and online. Some casino companies offer social casino games to continue to engage with customers when they are not in the venue and may offer prizes that can be redeemed in venues. Games may allow gambling companies to test out how popular games will be before they put them in venues. Although, as most players do not pay to play social casino games, they may engage with these differently from gambling products.

Ed.: We’ve seen (with the “fake news” debate) social media companies claiming to simply be a conduit to others’ content, not content providers themselves. What do they say in terms of these social games: I’m assuming they would either claim that they aren’t gambling, or that they aren’t responsible for what people use social media for?

Brett: We don’t want to speak for the social media companies themselves, and they appear to leave quite a bit up to the game developers. Advertising standards have become more lax on gambling games—the example we give in our article is Google, who had a strict policy against advertisements for gambling-related content in the Google Play store but in February 2015 began beta testing advertisements for social casino games. In some markets where online gambling is restricted, online gambling sites offer ‘free’ social casino games that link to real money sites as a way to reach these markets.

Ed.: I guess this is just another example of the increasingly attention-demanding, seductive, sexualised, individually targeted, ubiquitous, behaviourally attuned, monetised environment we (and young children) find ourselves in. Do you think we should be paying attention to this trend (e.g. noticing the close link between social gaming and gambling) or do you think we’ll all just muddle along as we’ve always done? Is this disturbing, or simply people doing what they enjoy doing?

Brett: We should certainly be paying attention to this trend, but don’t think the activity of social casino games is disturbing. A big part of the goal here is awareness, followed by conscious action. We would encourage companies to take more care in controlling who accesses their games and to whom their advertisements are targeted. As you note, David, we are in such a highly-targeted, specified state of advertising. As a result, we should, theoretically, be able to avoid marketing games to young kids. Companies should also certainly be mindful of the potential effect of cartoon games. We don’t automatically assign a sneaky, underhanded motive to the industry, but at the same time there is a percentage of the population that is at risk for gambling problems and we don’t want to exacerbate the situation by inadvertently advertising to young people, who are more susceptible to this type of messaging.

Read the full article: Abarbanel, B., Gainsbury, S.M., King, D., Hing, N., and Delfabbro, P.H. (2017) Gambling Games on Social Platforms: How Do Advertisements for Social Casino Games Target Young Adults? Policy & Internet 9 (2). DOI: 10.1002/poi3.135.

Brett Abarbanel was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

How useful are volunteer crisis-mappers in a humanitarian crisis?

Impromtu tent cities set after an earthquake measuring 7 plus on the Richter scale rocked Port au Prince Haiti on January 12, 2009. Image: United Nations Development Programme (Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

User-generated content can provide a useful source of information during humanitarian crises like armed conflict or natural disasters. With the rise of interactive websites, social media, and online mapping tools, volunteer crisis mappers are now able to compile geographic data as a humanitarian crisis unfolds, allowing individuals across the world to organise as ad hoc groups to participate in data collection. Crisis mappers have created maps of earthquake damage and trapped victims, analysed satellite imagery for signs of armed conflict, and cleaned Twitter data sets to uncover useful information about unfolding extreme weather events like typhoons.

Although these volunteers provide useful technical assistance to humanitarian efforts (e.g. when maps and records don’t exist or are lost), their lack of affiliation with “formal” actors, such as the United Nations, and the very fact that they are volunteers, makes them a dubious data source. Indeed, concerns have been raised about the quality of amateur mapping and data efforts, and the uses to which they are put. Most of these concerns assume that volunteers have no professional training. And herein lies the contradiction: by doing the work for free and at their own will the volunteers make these efforts possible and innovative, but this is also why crisis mapping is doubted and questioned by experts.

By investigating crisis-mapping volunteers and organisations, Elizabeth Resor’s article “The Neo-Humanitarians: Assessing the Credibility of Organised Volunteer Crisis Mappers” published in Policy & Internet presents evidence of a more professional cadre of volunteers and a means to distinguish between different types of volunteer organisations. Given these organisations now play an increasingly integrated role in humanitarian responses, it’s crucial that their differences are understood and that concerns about the volunteers are answered.

We caught up with Elizabeth to discuss her findings:

Ed.: We have seen from Citizen Science (and Wikipedia) that large crowds of non-professional volunteers can produce work of incredible value, if projects are set up right. Are the fears around non-professional crisis mappers valid? For example, is this an environment where everything “must be correct”, rather than “probably mostly correct”?

Elizabeth: Much of the fears around non-professional crisis mappers comes from a lack of understanding about who the volunteers are and why they are volunteering. As these questions are answered and professional humanitarian actors become more familiar with the concept of volunteer humanitarians, I think many of these fears are diminishing.

Due to the fast-paced and resource-constrained environments of humanitarian crises, traditional actors, like the UN, are used to working with “good enough” data, or data that are “probably mostly correct”. And as you point out, volunteers can often produce very high quality data. So when you combine these two facts, it stands to reason that volunteer crisis mappers can contribute necessary data that is most likely as good as (if not better) than the data that humanitarian actors are used to working with. Moreover, in my research I found that most of these volunteers are not amateurs in the full sense because they come from related professional fields (such as GIS).

Ed.: I suppose one way of assuaging fears is to maybe set up an umbrella body of volunteer crisis mapping organisations, and maybe offer training opportunities and certification of output. But then I suppose you just end up as professionals. How blurry are the lines between useful-not useful / professional-amateur in crisis mapping?

Elizabeth: There is an umbrella group for volunteer organisations set up exactly for that reason! It’s called the Digital Humanitarian Network. At the time that I was researching this article, the DHN was very new and so I wasn’t able to ask if actors were more comfortable working with volunteers contacted through the DHN, but that would be an interesting issue to look into.

The two crisis mapping organisations I researched—the Standby Task Force and the GIS Corps—both offer training and some structure to volunteer work. They take very different approaches to the volunteer work—the Standby Task Force work can include very simple micro-tasks (like classifying photographs), whereas the GIS Corps generally provides quite specialised technical assistance (like GIS analysis). However, both of these kinds of tasks can produce useful and needed data in a crisis.

Ed.: Another article in the journal examined the effective take-over of a Russian crisis volunteer website by the Government, i.e. by professionalising (and therefore controlling) the site and volunteer details they had control over who did / didn’t turn up in disaster areas (effectively meaning nonprofessionals were kept out). How do humanitarian organisations view volunteer crisis mappers: as useful organisations to be worked with in parallel, or as something to be controlled?

Elizabeth: I have seen examples of humanitarian and international development agencies trying to lead or create crowdsourcing responses to crises (for example, USAID “Mapping to End Malaria“). I take this as a sign that these agencies understand the value in volunteer contributions—something they wouldn’t have understood without the initial examples created by those volunteers.

Still, humanitarian organisations are large bureaucracies, and even in a crisis they function as bureaucracies, while volunteer organisations take a nimble and flexible approach. This structural difference is part of the value that volunteers can offer humanitarian organisations, so I don’t believe that it would be in the best interest of the humanitarian organisations to completely co-opt or absorb the volunteer organisations.

Ed.: How does liability work? Eg if crisis workers in a conflict zone are put in danger by their locations being revealed by well-meaning volunteers? Or mistakes being being made on the ground because of incorrect data—perhaps injected by hostile actors to create confusion (thinking of our current environment of hybrid warfare).

Elizabeth: Unfortunately, all humanitarian crises are dangerous and involve threats to “on the ground” response teams as well as affected communities. I’m not sure how liability is handled. Incorrect data or revealed locations might not be immediately traced back to the source of the problem (i.e. volunteers) and the first concern would be minimising the harm, not penalising the cause.

Still, this is the greatest challenge to volunteer crisis mapping that I see. Volunteers don’t want to cause more harm than good, and to do this they must understand the context of the crisis in which they are getting involved (even if it is remotely). This is where relationships with organisations “on the ground” are key. Also, while I found that most volunteers had experience related to GIS and/or data analysis, very few had experience in humanitarian work. This seems like an area where training can help volunteers understand the gravity of their work, to ensure that they take it seriously and do their best work.

Ed.: Finally, have you ever participated as a volunteer crisis mapper? And also: how do you the think the phenomenon is evolving, and what do you think researchers ought to be looking at next?

Elizabeth: I haven’t participated in any active crises, although I’ve tried some of the tools and trainings to get a sense of the volunteer activities.

In terms of future research, you mentioned hybridised warfare and it would be interesting to see how this change in the location of a crisis (i.e. in online spaces as well as physical spaces) is changing the nature of volunteer responses. For example, how can many dispersed volunteers help monitor ISIS activity on YouTube and Twitter? Or are those tasks better suited for an algorithm? I would also be curious to see how the rise of isolationist politicians in Europe and the US has influenced volunteer crisis mapping. Has this caused more people to want to reach out and participate in international crises or is it making them more inward-looking? It’s certainly an interesting field to follow!

Read the full article: Resor, E. (2016) The Neo-Humanitarians: Assessing the Credibility of Organized Volunteer Crisis Mappers. Policy & Internet 8 (1) DOI:10.1002/poi3.112.

Elizabeth Resor was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.