In the immediate aftermath of the 6 January attacks on the United States Capitol Building, in Washington D.C., it seemed to many as though time was racing. There was an urgency in identifying the perpetrators of these acts, in some cases classed as domestic terrorism. And social media became a key mechanism in doing so. Participants live streamed their actions, took selfies and group photos, and sent messages coordinating movements- or later, defending their role- to friends and family. In the 110 public arrests that have occurred at the time of writing, each and every warrant included a reference to image, video, or text from social media.
In the hours that followed the insurrection, the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump, had his Twitter account suspended for 12 hours, for breach of community terms and conditions inciting violence. It would be banned permanently before the next day. Parler, the cousin application to Twitter, operating without moderation through the Apple store, and a popular portal for far-right extremists, was given an initial warning, and then a countdown to its removal. In that 24 hour period, researchers around the world united to download as much content as possible. By the time it went offline that day, not only did the FBI have an archive of extensive evidence, researchers had downloaded in excess of 70TB of data to a central location.
Every hour that followed would see more arrests, more footage released, and even those with access to the foremost resourcing in this field, found themselves out of date within 30 minutes.
But for many, especially graduate students, early career researchers, and those abroad, the world was not rapidly winding itself towards the defense of the Inauguration of President Biden against future attacks from those who already incited riot. Indeed, the world was not going anywhere. The other enemy we are globally battling- COVID-19- meant many were in lockdowns. Unable to access research had been a key theme of the past year, and once again, at a pivotal moment, it seemed we would be bested.
But the removal of the accounts of President Trump, and of the platform, Parler, demonstrated the power of archival data. Since 2010, Twitter has backed up every single tweet sent on its platform through the United States Library of Congress. Sample data of each month since this project began is available through archive.org, an online depository of websites and data sets in their original format. Data that provides a snapshot of the virtual world in which it exists at any given time. Thus for researchers, it provides a rich repository of secondary, public, archival data. All that is needed is a focal point, a critical event of national (primarily US) or international importance, some time given to the language that your core study group would likely use, and a few lessons in coding. Studies of linguistics for the far-right and racially based hate speech, such as the Challenging Racism Project, Project Demos, and the Sentinel Project, are additionally available online to help inspire and educate newer researchers to the topic.
In the recent publication, Researching the Far Right: Theory, Method and Practice, this author presented a detailed description of the ability to utilise archival data from Twitter to examine behavioural matrices and sentiment analysis of the far-right. With the goal of comparing real world behavioural and influence typologies to those which exist virtually, the chapter explains the various steps that were taken during sustained research to present a greater understanding of identity and community in the online environment. The publication further presents chapters pertaining to the role of social media in understanding the communication modes of the far-right; dispelling the notion of the lone wolf, by analysing the networks made through virtual interactions; and discussing the ethics of utilising social media in research.
Additionally, secondary, public, archival data is versatile. Whereas critical insights are most certainly gained through direct interviews and the study of individual narratives, the implied anonymity many users feel online- particularly on platforms such as Twitter and Parler which require substantially less identifying information in comparison to Facebook, for instance- can present an unfiltered presentation of views. For the far-right, the long held tradition of a ‘second life’– where one can express views from anti-racial or anti-Semitic sentiment to targeting the same groups with hate speech- can be voiced with minimal risk of identification or impact on their daily lives. For researchers, this unfiltered and often unmoderated content provides an opportunity for the development of unique insights and depth analysis of reactions, behaviours, and sentiment surrounding events of critical importance to the groups, themselves.
So whilst the world appears to be racing forward without many of us, at the same time, it is creating the next generation of archival data- exceptionally rich archival data– for researchers to continue to develop their understanding of far-right extremist ideologies, behaviours, sentiments and reactivity, as a potential threat assessment tool for intelligence and law enforcement communities.