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Leave your ego at the door - Digital Threat Digest

PGI’s Digital Investigations Team brings you the Digital Threat Digest, SOCMINT and OSINT insights into disinformation, influence operations, and online harms.

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This week, I've had the pleasure of attending the Terrorism and Social Media conference in Swansea; meeting and engaging with over 200 of the world’s foremost extremism and counter terrorism researchers and practitioners. Usually, at these types of events I am bombarded with the same kind of complaints: the platforms need to do better; content moderation needs to be slicker; we need more money to understand this niche thing that only impacts 0.004% of internet users; big tech is the modern day Satan personified...and so on. But, this week I was pleasantly surprised - tech platforms were more or less left unscathed, there was no grandiose (pointless) big blue sky thinking headline about removing all harmful material from the internet, and one talk even spoke about the importance of researching with empathy.

One thing that stood out to me, unlike other conferences I’ve attended, is the air of humility - that (more or less) the panels, speakers, and general delegates came to this conference to learn rather than here to sell. While that might be a salesperson’s worst nightmare, as someone deeply invested in the world of violent extremist trust and safety it was a pleasant surprise and made for a very enjoyable experience.

There are a thousand barriers to creating a safer internet, and modern solutions and developments such as regulations and legislation (while critically important) make our jobs even harder to navigate. But, in my opinion, the biggest barrier is our own egos. For the academic and practitioner, the moment you begin to believe you are an ‘expert’ is the moment you will start missing the obvious. For the legislator, the moment you begin to believe the law covers all online harm and protects civilians is the moment the threat actor slips through the loophole. Even for threat actors - the moment you think you’ve perfected your IO or recruitment campaign is the moment someone uncovers it… Improvement and success are stagnated by over-inflated egos - confidence is important in life, but it needs to be paired with a curious humility that keeps you on your own toes, always thinking about the 'So what?'.

This brings me back to the researching with empathy point as well. It’s something that I had heard of a little during my masters degree but not something I’ve actively kept in mind until now. The speaker discussed how, when researching within the incel community, it’s important to do so with empathy of those people’s ideologies. Having research empathy doesn’t mean that we condone the red, blue, or black pilling of online communities, but it does mean that we accept that the views shared in these fringe forums by these people are theirs and they are valid based on their experiences and navigation of their place in their society. Just because I don’t have a personal connection with feeling as if the modern world has made me involuntarily in-celibate doesn’t mean that RedInc3l403s’ grievances aren’t legitimate to him.

Keeping this line of empathy allows us to maintain that humility, and looking at cases through a empathy-humility dual-lense allows us to look at complicated situations with an open mind and make sense of even the most diametrically opposed ideologies in society. This is more likely to get us closer to a solution. So, as you go through your week whether you’re working in this industry or not, I encourage you to keep those two traits at the forefront of your decision making and mindset and see the positive impact it brings to your life and research.

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More about Protection Group International's Digital Investigations

Our Digital Investigations Analysts combine modern exploitative technology with deep human analytical expertise that covers the social media platforms themselves and the behaviours and the intents of those who use them. Our experienced analyst team have a deep understanding of how various threat groups use social media and follow a three-pronged approach focused on content, behaviour and infrastructure to assess and substantiate threat landscapes.

Disclaimer: Protection Group International does not endorse any of the linked content.