Understanding Social Media Indicators for Radicalization and Violence

Ms Rebecca Bywater1, Dr Peter Forster1
1Penn State University, University Park, United States

The threat of homegrown attacks is unlikely to cease anytime soon, as terror groups continue to employ capable means to radicalize individuals and encourage directed and inspired attacks. College students are an at-risk population and target of radicalization attempts.

This exercise utilizes a case study methodology to help participants explore the context of emerging threats, identify systemic vulnerabilities such as information sharing, and devise practical responses through an interactive table-top exercise (TTX) based on current trends. Based upon ground truth, the scenario integrates formal reports with open source intelligence gathered from social media to expose emerging indicators and warnings and improve situational awareness. It also provides an overview of some methods that may be used to better understand how the analysis of social media can provide a predictive roadmap of events.

Understanding Social Media Indicators for Radicalization and Violence

Learning Objectives:

  • Consider some the principal drivers of violent extremism, particularly those related to college campuses and current initiatives to respond to them.
  • Identify and analyze vulnerabilities with a focus on improving information sharing
  • Provide practical advice on responses and how to use social media as an open source intelligence tool to improve situational awareness
  • Analyze opportunities for cross-sectoral and interdisciplinary collaboration and learning among domestic and international stakeholders and organizations for countering violent extremism and radicalization.


Dr. Forster is an associate teaching professor of Security & Risk Analysis in Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), and an affiliate professor in Penn State’s School of International Affairs. As a member of a number of research centers, he studies risk and crisis management situation awareness, social network analysis, counterterrorism policies and strategies. His work includes using simulations and tabletop exercises to improve command and control. Dr. Forster is the co-chair of the NATO/OSCE Partnership for Peace Consortium Combating Terrorism Working Group (CTWG) and co-course director of NATO’s Defense Against Terrorism course.

Dr. Forster’s primary areas of interest are terrorism/counter-terrorism, risk and crisis management, and national and homeland security. Most recently, Forster developed and facilitated tabletop exercises involving representatives from 40 countries under the auspices of the CTWG. Similar exercises are being repeated in a number of countries. He has led grants exploring process and technology integration to improve law enforcement’s situational awareness of issues such as drug and human trafficking and right-wing extremism.  He also oversees a research project on improving the understanding of how extremist organizations’ use the online environment. Dr. Forster serves on the Department of Homeland Security Subcommittee on Countering Violent Extremism, is the Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies online journal Terrorism: An Electronic Journal and Knowledge Base advisory board, and is the co-PI on the National Science Foundation’s Federal Cyber Corps Scholarship for Service grant at Penn State.

His current research focus is evolution of terrorists’ use of on-line and mobile technologies    to identify indicators and warnings of terrorist threats and infrastructure and human vulnerabilities. Dr. Forster is the co-author and contributing author to books on situational awareness (forthcoming 2019), cognitive systems (Cognitive Systems Engineering Michael D. McNeese & Peter K. Forster, 2017), NATO’s military burden sharing and intervention (Multinational Military Intervention, Stephen J. Cimbala & Peter K. Forster 2008). He has published articles on technology and counter-terrorism, extremist recruitment models in the United States, understanding distributed team cognition, homeland security, and American foreign policy and interests in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Dr. Forster teaches courses on crisis and risk management, cyber-crime, counterterrorism, and war; and the impact of information on 21st century society.    Dr. Forster holds a PhD. in Political Science (International Relations) from Penn State.

Ms. Rebecca Bywater is the Director of Threat Assessment for The Pennsylvania State University Police and Public Safety Department.  In her role, she leads a multi-disciplinary team to assess, determine, and direct threat management plans. She also helped to develop community-wide trainings and the institution’s violence prevention policy. Rebecca has over a decade of law enforcement experience and has experience collaborating with local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to analyze threats and coordinate efforts in the areas of response and prevention.  Rebecca is also an active member of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals (ATAP).

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