Does the number of results returned by popular UK-centric web platforms reflect the assessed threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other terrorist organisations?

  • Neil J. Honeyman

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This thesis utilises a broadly critical theoretical framework to examine the convergence of two of the most significant societal developments of the 21st century – the rapid and widespread proliferation of the World Wide Web; and the emergence of violent Islamist extremism as a threat to the national security of Western democracies.
The literature review identified substantial gaps in the existing knowledge, with the most closely related research focusing almost exclusively on content generated by the groups themselves and qualitative analysis of the types of content created. The absence of a quantitative analysis that replicates the experience of a typical World Wide Web user, by holistically incorporating the full breadth of terrorist-related material, strongly supports the importance of this research.
Adopting a critical theoretical approach, the core objective of this research is to understand whether the policies of governments and the digital hegemony of majorweb-based information and media providers disproportionally amplify or reduce the volume of content relating to terrorist organisations, testing the hypothesis that the availability of material online regarding 21st century terrorist groups should broadly reflect the actual threat posed by them.
This hypothesis is tested by looking at the correlation between data on the lethality of such organisations and data on their prevalence on popular web platforms. This required the creation of new methodologies for obtaining quality estimates of such data. Quality metrics were devised and the collected data was disaggregated into datasets for indicative estimates for the entire indexed Web available via search engine platforms, for mainstream media, and for social media. The Islamist extremist group ‘The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’, also known as ‘ISIS’, was taken as a specific example, although data for a broad cross-section of terrorist groups were examined.
Results revealed that there is little correlation between the threat posed and the availability of material relating to terrorist groups online. By a substantial margin, ISIS currently poses the greatest threat of all the organisations considered in this research. However, whilst ISIS does have relatively high levels of online prevalence compared with other terrorist organisations, ISIS does not have the highest levels of prevalence overall and this does not correlate with the actual threat posed by the group. Potential explanations for this disparity are explored, but further research is required to understand whether this is a natural phenomenon resulting from the demographics of platform users, or the result of automated processes designed to limit the availability of this content.
Date of AwardJan 2021
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorRisto Henrik Aleksander Talas (Supervisor), Paul Norman (Supervisor) & Christopher Gray Lewis (Supervisor)

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