Criminology: ESRC Wales DTP PhD Collaborative Studentship at Swansea University

  • Phd
  • Full cost of tuition fees and an annual stipend
  • 6 June 2021
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Criminology: ESRC Wales Doctoral Training Partnership PhD Collaborative Studentship: The Application of Digital Forensics and Machine Learning to Automatically Detect and Flag Modified Online Terrorist Propaganda

Swansea University, supported by the ESRC Doctoral Training Partnership for Wales (Wales DTP), invites applications for funded PhD study, available to start in October 2021. The following collaborative studentship is available in the Criminology pathway of the Wales DTP:

‘The Application of Digital Forensics and Machine Learning to Automatically Detect and Flag Modified Online Terrorist Propaganda’ in Collaboration with the Tech Against Terrorism

In the 24 hours after the live-streamed attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 2019, Facebook blocked more than 1.2 million videos of the attack at the point of upload. A further 300,000 copies were removed only after they had been posted. One of the reasons why these additional copies were not detected by Facebook’s image and video matching technology was the proliferation of different variants of the video: more than 800 visually-distinct variants were in circulation.

Facebook’s subsequent analysis found that these were the product of “a core community of bad actors working together to continually reupload edited versions of this video in ways designed to defeat our detection”. Whilst some of the modifications employed by terrorist groups/sympathisers to evade detection are basic (such as recording the original video on one’s own PC), others are more sophisticated and exploit commercial or open-source anti-forensic methods and tools. The aim of this project is to study the application of digital forensics methods – together with machine learning techniques – to the automated detection of terrorist content that has been modified to evade identification.

The core research questions are: (1) what techniques and applications do terrorist groups/sympathisers use to modify content in order to evade detection?; (2) how can digital forensics tools be deployed to identify content that has been modified in this way? In addition, the student will explore how machine learning techniques can be used to automatically analyse evidence of such modification and make the findings available to content moderators. The successful candidate will shape the project in several respects: by selecting which form of violent extremism to focus on (violent jihadism, the radical right or an emerging movement such as “incels”); which tech platforms to focus on (TAT works with a variety of platforms offering different services); what type of content to focus on (images/videos/audio/text); and, by selecting which digital forensics tools and techniques to apply. Data for the study will be supplied by Tech Against Terrorism via its Terrorist Content Analytics Platform. TAT will also share the tools and methods that are developed during the project with the companies that it mentors, ensuring that the PhD contributes to the increased resilience of small tech platforms against terrorist exploitation.

We welcome applications for both full- and part-time study. Studentships are available as either ‘1+3’ (i.e. one full-time year of a research training masters followed by three years of full-time doctoral study or the part-time equivalent) or ‘+3’ (i.e. three years of full-time doctoral study or its part-time equivalent), depending on the needs of the applicant. Swansea University values diversity and equality at all levels and encourages applications from all sections of the community.

Begin your postgraduate research journey at Swansea University: a top 30 research university (REF 2014) producing internationally recognised research that makes a real difference to society. We provide a welcoming environment for PhD researchers with specialist training, advice and development opportunities. As an ESRC Wales DTP researcher, you will also benefit from cohort-based networking events and dedicated ESRC Wales DTP student representatives at each campus.

This studentship is a ‘collaborative’ award. Applicants should carefully consider the working title and description of the project and may wish to contact the named supervisor and / or the Swansea pathway contact for a discussion prior to applying. They are:


A fully-funded Wales DTP studentship is available to both UK and international (including EU and EEA) students. All applicants will be eligible for a full award consisting of a maintenance stipend and payment of tuition fees at the UK research organisation rate. Applicants must satisfy studentship eligibility requirements. For further details, see the UKRI web site.
Academic eligibility:
ESRC studentships are highly competitive. Candidates should have an excellent background in the social sciences, holding a first or an upper second class bachelor’s degree; applications from those who hold a relevant research training master’s degree (or have an equivalent background in research training) will also be considered for a ‘+3’ award.
If applicable, a minimum overall IELTS score of 6.5 with no less than 6.0 in any individual component (or Swansea University recognised equivalent) is required. For more details, please read the University’s English Language entry policy.
Full-time ESRC studentship award holders cannot hold either a full-time job or a permanent part-time job during the period of their award. Part-time ESRC studentship award holders cannot hold a full-time job.


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Demonstrate your English skills with IELTS.


The studentship provides the full cost of tuition fees and an annual stipend. There will be additional funds available for research expenses.

Studentship awards commence in October 2021 and will cover your tuition fees as well as a maintenance grant (currently £15,285 per annum for 2020/21 for full-time students, updated each year) and includes access to an additional Research Training Support Grant (RTSG). There are other opportunities and benefits available to studentship holders, including an overseas fieldwork allowance (if applicable), internship opportunities, overseas institutional visits and other small grants.

A ‘1+3’ studentship provides funding for four years (or part-time equivalent), involving the completion of a research training master’s degree in the first year, followed by 3 years’ research funding for a PhD. A ‘+3’ studentship provides funding for the three years of PhD research study only (or part-time equivalent).


Please visit our website for more information.
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