Department of Psychology

Using big data to understand online radicalisation

This interdisciplinary project will investigate how and why people develop allegiance to extremist groups through online communications.

This project is active. The start date is 1 July 2016 and the end date will be 31 August 2017.

Research context

Extremist groups use mainstream social media to socialise, radicalise, and recruit new members. This use of online communications in English by supporters of extremist groups presents two unprecedented research opportunities:

  1. to predict the spread of extremism in English-speaking populations
  2. to understand how online communications shape people's understanding of extremist groups and their opponents

This research project will address how language, technology, and the media impact on conflict.

Our challenge in addressing these issues is that there are currently no big data analytics systems that can enable three necessary and significant sets of analyses:

  • longitudinal analysis (meaningful change in an individual’s posts over time)
  • qualitative analysis of the narrative content of a large volume of posts
  • prediction of the emergence of new online psychological groups or expansion of existing groups

The absence of this functionality means that current systems cannot adequately analyse the ongoing and developing debates, conversations and opinions in big (social media) data in a way that makes this data amenable to our purposes of understanding how and why radicalisation can occur online.

The proposed research provides a timely opportunity to refine methods, software and analytics to maximise the impact that psychology and computer science can make to countering extremism.

The central research questions are how and why people develop allegiance to extremist groups through communicating online. To do this, we will develop the functionalities and capabilities of an existing software suite (Chorus) that can harvest and analyse large volumes of publicly-available Twitter data.

Aims and objectives

The central aim of this project is to develop conceptually-grounded social media analytics software to investigate the socialisation and radicalisation of mainstream users.

As a by-product of this process, and secondary aim, we will establish how supporters of extremist groups use online communications in English to affect how their target audience defines both themselves and their opponents.

Applications and benefits

This project will deliver a software tool that can analyse longitudinal big data. This software will be open source and freely available.

This software has the potential to make a big impact in the social sciences and will be applicable to, and usable by, any researcher or practitioner interested in analysing social media data.

Project team

Project budget




Any queries about this project can be directed to Dr Laura Smith.