Madeleine works as a Researcher with Control Risks. Madeleine is a former ASPI Research Intern and Events and Communications Officer. All views expressed are personal and do not reflect the views of Control Risks.
Thanks for agreeing to chat with us Madeleine! Can you start by telling us more about your interests and research areas?
My pleasure – thanks for reaching out! I guess my interest in the broad area of national security came about during the last year of my undergraduate degree at UQ. I wrote a kind of mini-thesis on how extreme Islamist groups in Indonesia use Facebook to engage with similar groups operating in the Middle East and also to recruit people. It was a fascinating topic and when I moved to London to do my postgrad, it was something I really wanted to explore further.
I did my masters in Middle East politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and it was there that I was able to really develop my interest in religious extremism and gender studies. This was back when Islamic State was at its strongest and I wrote my thesis on how the group used appeals to gender to recruit and radicalize “western” Muslims. A big part of how they did this was through online social media so again, I was looking at their use of platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc. Using my findings from that, I examined how governments incorporated gender into their efforts at countering radicalization, terrorism and violent extremism. Although at the time, it was definitely looking more at how they didn’t incorporate gender and identifying the importance of doing so.
Finally, it was during my internship with ASPI that I was able to develop my interest in other areas like cyber security and women, peace and security and also combine them with my interests in countering radicalization, terrorism and violent extremism.
You recently wrote a chapter ‘Social Media and Counterterrorism’ for ASPI’s Counterterrorism Yearbook 2019. How can social media companies such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube better help to counter the spread of online extremism?
When I was first approached to write this chapter I hesitated because, while I have a good understanding of how extremist groups make use of social media for recruitment and propaganda, I wasn’t entirely across what the platforms were doing in response. Especially around things like the use of algorithms and artificial technology! But I am so glad I persevered because it was incredibly fascinating to research and write.
Future challenges in this space will generally arise from three key areas: 1) social media business model, 2) the shift to encrypted platforms and smaller platforms, and 3) reliance on AI technology. Essentially, what it comes down to is the fact that unlike the internet, platforms like Facebook and YouTube aren’t public spaces in which all content is equal. While anyone can join them, once a person has created an account, the content they have access to is largely controlled by the companies, using machine-learning algorithms. These are private companies, the main goal of which is arguably to generate profit through advertising revenue. Therefore, they have every incentive to gather as much data as possible and feed that data into algorithms that are used to optimise the content their users see. For example, if a user tends to search for videos on a particular topic, the algorithms will recognise that pattern of behaviour and begin feeding them similar content. Over time, the user will no longer have to search for content—it will simply be presented to them.
I provide a bunch of recommendations in my chapter (which y’all should read btw) but I guess it boils down to the following:
- Increase transparency and public participation in rule making for digital platforms, giving users a greater say on how their data is used and stored and, subsequently, how their daily news feeds are curated;
- Social media platforms should move away from their reliance on AI technology and machine-learning algorithms and work more closely with human intelligence;
- The big social media platforms must ensure that lessons learned are shared with and implemented by smaller companies (especially given recent trends towards those smaller platforms by right-wing extremist groups);
- Increased transparency by platforms concerning not just the numbers of posts but the nature of the content being removed. In order to predict future trends, it’s crucial to understand the type of content that we’re seeing;
- Social media companies must be transparent about the algorithms used in the machine learning technologies they use to flag content, including more information about the types of people who are doing the removing, their backgrounds etc.
What advice do you have for women wanting to pursue a career in this field?
Prioritize organisational culture over material things like location and salary etc. I know this is a privileged position to take but I strongly believe that you’ll be happier and more content in the long run if you are working for an organisation where you feel valued and supported – and this could pay off financially in the future too. The more passionate you are about a job, the harder you will work and the greater effort you will put in. If you’re in the right kind of organisation, this will be noticed and rewarded.
Don’t be afraid to make a change because you think it might be negatively perceived by others. You are the expert on yourself, so only you truly know what you need. This idea has really resonated with me since I read Michelle Obama’s autobiography. She spoke in the context of being scared to admit to herself and others that after years of study, she realised she wasn’t really passionate about corporate law. Commenting on caring too much about what other people think, she said: “It can put you on an established path – the my isn’t that impressive path – and keep you there for a long time. Maybe it stops you from swerving; from ever even considering a swerve, because what you risk losing in terms of other people’s high regard can feel too costly.” Basically, don’t be afraid or embarrassed to make big decisions concerning your career out of fear of making a mistake or disappointing others – the reality is, your working life will be long, and you may make mistakes.
What strategic issue is currently keeping you up at night?
Coming off the back of my research for the CT yearbook chapter, one of the big things keeping me up at night is the issue of data collection and the privacy laws surrounding it. It’s really scary to think about the amount of information companies like Facebook and Instagram have on you and what they can do with that data.
Election interference and misinformation campaigns is another one that’s making it difficult to get some shut eye at the moment and then of course, there’s Trump.
What podcasts are you currently listening to?
Finally, who inspires you?
The many amazing women in my life. My nana was one of the only women in her graduating medical class at the University of Edinburgh in 1950. She fought against entrenched biases that existed back then and went on to be a highly successful General Practitioner.
And then there’s my mum. She also studied medicine and graduated at a time where there was a very set and established path for graduate doctors, particularly female graduates who were considered “lucky to be there”. But my ma pushed back against that idea and rather than take a job at an established hospital in Brighton, she moved to Kenya and did her student elective year there instead. Despite everyone in her life telling her that doing so would make it difficult, if not impossible, to get a good job back in England when she returned, my mum knew that this was something she needed to do for herself. She later went back to Africa for another year and worked in obstetrics and neonatal care in South Africa. I grew up hearing the most amazing stories about her experiences in Africa and this made me want to travel the world too.
My point is though – both my mum and nana did things that were scary and that perhaps other people in their lives didn’t quite understand or approve of. But they did them anyway. And that, to me, is inspiring. They both showed an incredible strength of character that I hope to one day be able to emulate.
Updated: 21 Jun 2019