Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2022, $749,087)
How do domestic extremists fund illegal activities? What strategies do they use to hide funding, to minimize traceability, or to avoid financial transactions? Understanding and responding appropriately to the threat of violence by domestic extremists is difficult, given that financial transactions can be impossible to observe—particularly if extremists are self-funded. This proposal addresses a crucial but difficult piece of the challenge: understanding how extremists talk about financing and the strategies they use to obtain and hide money.
The project will analyze social media discussions of financing strategies across a variety of mainstream and fringe online platforms as well as the dark web. By hand-coding messages to train a machine-learning model, the project will identify extremist communities on each platform. Additional analyses will distinguish conversations related to money and will describe the strategies or methods used to finance activities in each community. Finally, the project will describe finance-related connections between communities and across external sites, for example to crowdfunding sites or cryptocurrency wallets. These methods were proven feasible and useful by team members in recent work focused on mapping international connections between extremist communities. This proposal expands on that prior work by utilizing proprietary computational infrastructure: RAND’s Dark Web Observatory and the RAND-Lex text analysis package.
The project will develop information and tools to help law enforcement and others involved in intervening to prevent future violence. For example, the findings will enable the identification of red flags in publicly available information sources that could inform risk assessment and planning. They will also enable inter-agency cooperation, for example by sharing clear web information that points to activity occurring on the dark web.
To disseminate the results widely, the research team will publish an academic journal article, a publicly-available report, and several short research guides—including a “How To” document for law enforcement professionals describing how the findings can inform monitoring and enforcement. With the support of RAND’s Office of External Affairs these research products will be briefed to state and federal agencies. The results will be further shared with academics and practitioners at conferences. Finally, the research team will host an online panel discussion describing how to use easily accessible data in conjunction with the project findings to identify red flags associated with funding illegal activities. The deidentified social media data will be shared on the National Archive of Criminal Justice Data to make it publicly available for other researchers.
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