Joe Whittaker is a Lecturer in Cyber Threats at the School of Social Sciences. He has researched how social media platforms’ recommendation systems promote and amplify extreme far-right content, as well as publishing on topics such as counter-narratives and extremist video games.

What is your field of research?

I am in the department of Criminology and I research the ways in which terrorists and extremists use the Internet. This includes building a database of 231 terrorists to analyse whether they were radicalised online; conducting experiments to assess whether social media recommendation algorithms can amplify extremist content; as well as the ways in which terrorists groups use video games. I also look at how we respond to extremism online, both by regulating content and conducting positive intervention such as counter-narratives.

Dr Joe Whittaker

How did you become interested in the field?

When I was completing my MA in 2014/2015, it was the height of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The exploits of the group were the first story on the news each night and on the front page of newspapers. A large part of this coverage was about how they were exploiting social media to recruit over 50,000 people from around the world to join their cause. Around this time, I saw an advert to study for a PhD at Swansea University on the topic of online radicalisation and immediately jumped at the opportunity.

How did you come to work at Swansea University?

As mentioned above, I began by PhD here in 2016 in the department of Criminology. As I submitted my thesis at the beginning of 2020, I was appointed as a tutor, and I was fortunate enough to be appointed as a lecturer in the summer of the same year.

Throughout my time at Swansea, I’ve benefitted greatly from my colleagues at the Cyber Threats Research Centre. We’ve got a multi-disciplinary team here which has given me so many insightful perspectives on how to think about academic problems.

What do you hope to achieve with your research?

My goals are two pronged:

  1. It is very important to generate academic knowledge for its own sake, free from outside interests, and transfer that knowledge to students via research-led teaching.
  2. At the same time, I am a firm believer that academics must speak to stakeholders who have the ability to change the world. In this field, it includes government, law enforcement, tech companies, and practitioners.

While there is sometimes a balancing game between these two goals, I feel it’s vital to navigate them both.

What practical applications could your research have?

My research has the ability to help policymakers consider the direction of travel for legislation. Largely, my findings play down the idea that individuals are radicalising online, but rather face-to-face interactions are still key. However, at present, counter-terrorism and counter-extremism policy is very focused on the Internet, possibly at the expense of on the ground interventions. My research suggests that the former should not be prioritised over the latter.

What is next for your research?

I’m currently writing about the ways in which we regulate extremist speech online. As well as freedom of speech issues, it is very possible that we were helping to spur terrorist innovation by forcing them to become more resilient to content takedown methods. My research suggests that this may actually be increasing the likelihood of terrorists’ plots being successful. I’m thinking whether there are other methods beyond the removal of content, such as algorithmic downranking and counter-speech that could be deployed effectively.

Find out more about Dr Joe Whittaker