Extremist Social Movement Groups and Their Online Digital Libraries

By Reid, Edna; Chen, Hsinchun | Information Outlook, June 2006 | Go to article overview

Extremist Social Movement Groups and Their Online Digital Libraries


Reid, Edna, Chen, Hsinchun, Information Outlook


Terrorist/extremist groups' use of the Web has expanded beyond routine communication and propaganda operations to include training, recruitment, logistical support, and development of virtual communities (Reid et al., 2002; Tsfati and Weimann, 2002). Their Web sites have increased in number, technical sophistication, and multimedia content. How then does one identify, organize, analyze, and provide access to extremist social movement groups' Web-based cultural artifacts (e.g., videos, Web sites, discussion forum messages, weblogs)?

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The extensive use of communication networks is empowering social movement struggles internationally and opening new spaces--called "virtual publics"--that move beyond the mere exchange of information to facilitate shared cultures, coordination, and solidarity (Garrido and Halavais, 2003; Jones and Rafael, 2000, pp. 214-23).

For example, terrorist/extremist groups are building dynamic online libraries of multilingual training materials (e.g., monthly magazines, manuals, instructional videos, reports, and speeches), and they are doing so with some support from experts who answer questions and share experiences on message boards or in chat rooms (Glasser and Coll, 2005). Anyone supporting or conducting research on social movement organizations today needs to understand: (a) the wealth and variety of cultural artifacts that they produce; (b) the organizations that provide access to them; and (c) advanced research tools that support access and post-retrieval analysis of social movement groups' cultural artifacts, such as the Dark Web Research Portal testbed being developed by the AI (Artificial Intelligence) Lab, University of Arizona.

This article describes terrorist/extremist groups' cultural artifacts and the ongoing efforts at the AI Lab to build a digital library that enables the communities of librarians/information managers, researchers, and practitioners to effectively respond to information management challenges posed by extremist social movement groups.

Extremist Social Groups' Cultural Artifacts

Extremist social movement groups' cultural artifacts could serve as original and unique information resources to support evidence-based analysis of the terrorism phenomenon. This collection represents the alternate side of the Web, referred to as the "Dark Web" (the use of the Web by terrorist/extremist groups to spread their ideas); it has received extensive government and media attention (Reid et al., 2004). However, librarians/information managers, researchers, and practitioners face major challenges in identifying, collecting, organizing, and using the artifacts because of the dearth of efforts expended for the systematic collection building, organization, and preservation of these ephemeral multilingual and multimedia resources.

Furthermore, some of the extremist Web sites are extremely dynamic, and their contents have a short shelf life. Their dynamic nature poses a major challenge because they can emerge overnight, post messages including videos (e.g., the gruesome beheading tapes), and then swiftly disappear or, in many cases, seem to disappear by changing their URLs or ISPs but retaining much of the content (Weimann, 2005). The new URLs or ISPs are announced in online discussion forums, weblogs, chat sessions, etc. These activities are examples of what Preece (2000) describes as the "dark sides of online communities"--those that do not necessarily support the traditional concept of positive social interactions.

The ISTS (Institute for Security Technology Studies) at Dartmouth College reported terrorist/extremist groups' online social interactions as falling into five distinct areas: propaganda, recruitment and training, fundraising, communications, and targeting (ISTS, November 2003, 11). An example of propaganda is the Alneda Web site, which was considered a primary outlet for "official statements," reports, and videos from senior members of the al-Qaeda movement. …

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