Graduate, Students, Research

PhD student Ryan Scrivens interns with VOX-Pol Network

November 28, 2016
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Criminology PhD student Ryan Scrivens traveled to Ireland to participate in a three-month internship with the VOX-Pol Network of Excellence and returned to Canada with a wealth of professional connections, including new projects working with renowned researchers.

“I applied for this internship because I wanted to gain as much from other peoples’ experiences a possible. The VOX-Pol Network is internationally known. It has some of the best people in terrorism research, and I really wanted to connect with them and hopefully work with them as well,” says Scrivens on his motivation for participating in the research mobility program.

During the internship, Scrivens tested a new computational tool, the VOX-Pol Lexicon Interface. Computer scientists developed the interface, which among other features, helps find certain people discussing topics of interest online – potentially radical users – by searching for keywords related to extremism using word2vec. The tool is useful to researchers, including social scientists like Scrivens, because as the Internet continues to grow it becomes too difficult to do manual analysis online.

Scrivens tested the capabilities of the tool, and determined that future work should be done to improve its ability to identify radical users. For example, the tool would benefit from a sentiment analysis built-in, one that could measure users’ opinions around specific topics. This will help researchers better recognize radical users versus people found online because they use the search’s keywords.

“The main goal is to find users of interest. People who are discussing particular topics online,” says Scrivens. “A practical tool for sure. But what we found is the interface, as it is right now, is more of a retrieval tool. It’s good for finding people, but we can’t really measure what they are saying yet.”

The process of testing the interface did help Scrivens identify another potential research project: studying the role of women in the right-wing extremist movement online – a demographic that is often overlooked by researchers. The initial testing of the interface took place in Stormfront, a popular white supremacy website. Stormfront also has a sub-forum for female users called “For Stormfront Ladies Only”.

He’s now conducting a qualitative analysis study with renowned researchers Maura Conway, co-coordinator of VOX-Pol, and Lorraine Bowman-Grieve, Waterford Institute for Technology, on the specific role that women perform in the Stormfront sub-forum.

“We know women have been actively involved in the movement since the 1920s with the KKK, but scholars haven’t given them much attention to better understand their role. There’s research that suggests women just play a submissive, sort of ‘I love my man’ kind of role, but there’s one or two scholars who say they play a more active recruitment role as well,” says Scrivens, and who concludes there’s more work to be done.  

Scrivens’ internship with the VOX-Pol Network is now complete. He will continue to help test the VOX-Pol Interface in conjunction with pursuing his new research projects.

The VOX-Pol Network of Excellence (NoE) is an academic research network focused on researching Violent Online Political Extremism.