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Graduate Student Spotlight: Vivian Guetler

               Vivian Guetler, black woman phd candidate at WVU recipient of Outstanding Dissertation Award standing in black suit in front of a greenery plant background and a blue electric sign that says "you are exactly where you need to be"

Vivian Guetler, a Ph.D. Candidate at WVU's Department of Sociology and Anthropology, received the Inaugural Department Outstanding Dissertation Fellowship Award for her dissertation, The Case of Cyberterrorism: Dark Web, Online Networks and Sentiments of Jihadists.  This fellowship recognizes, honors, and promotes examples of high quality dissertation research. Vivian's Research focus areas involve crime, cyberterrorism, technology and society, culture, social networks and interactions.

Tell us about your time at WVU. What do you enjoy about being a doctoral student here?

Becoming a Mountaineer. My experience has been great so far, and time seems to fly by. This is my 5th year at WVU, and as much as I want to graduate and move on, I am dreading saying goodbye. I enjoy the opportunities available for grad students, such as graduate assistantships, conference travel, or research funds. The advising, mentorship, and support from SOCA faculty. The opportunity to take classes in other departments that count toward your degree or work with researchers from other departments. Most importantly, having supportive cohorts who are like family and always rooting for you. I also enjoy the fun and relaxing things to do outside WVU, like hiking the state parks in ‘Almost Heaven’ or going on a road trip to the nearest big cities.

What issues do you hope to address through your dissertation?

I examine the use of emerging technologies by terrorist groups. I leverage machine learning, natural language processing, social network analysis, and criminological theories to examine Jihadists' online behavior, sentiments, and networks using text data from the dark web. Using machine learning algorithms, I am developing a sentence-level terrorism-related sentiment lexicon for text classification. Once validated, the lexicon can be applied to identify, evaluate, and detect radical content from online discussion forums, social media platforms, and websites.

My dissertation provides insight into how terrorists, their supporters, and those seeking radical ideologies use the Internet to communicate, recruit, radicalize, and attack. It offers tools for countering and disrupting extremist narratives and networks from the Internet. The findings contribute to the broader theoretical questions and scholarly research on cyberterrorism, counterterrorism, cybercrime, security and open-source intelligence, political violence, criminal organizations, social networks, social movements, collective action, and communication studies.

How did you decide your research question?

I came into the program already interested in researching the social implications of technology, with an idea to conduct a cybercrime study. The questions I had in mind were, how do we counter or hinder cybercrime? Which tools are used to counter cybercrime or cyberterrorism? Most importantly, how can sociology and criminology contribute to the study of terrorism and cyberterrorism? With these ideas in mind, I met and spoke with my dissertation advisor, Dr. Wozniak, and other faculty advisors who helped shape my research questions and narrow down the topic.

What is the most challenging part about writing a dissertation?

Starting to write! I think the most challenging part is actually to start writing. I enjoy the data analysis part, but somehow struggle with a writer’s block when it comes to writing. It gets easier once I opened a word document, saved it as “diss_v1” (this felt real), changed the font to something else than Calibri or Times New Roman, and then just started writing something, even if it’s just adding references and quotes, an outline, or the title page. Of course, a looming deadline is the greatest motivation for writing. However, I am honored to have won the inaugural outstanding dissertation fellowship from the department, as I have ample time for data analysis and writing the dissertation.

What was an interesting part of your research that caught you by surprise and why?

Text as data. I find analyzing large-scale unstructured data such as text interesting and comes with its challenges compared to the structured data traditionally used in research. Thanks to the open-source software such as R and Python and automated text methods, I can analyze users posting behavior, content, and sentiments from the dark web forums. What is surprising about the research on extremists' use of the Internet is that the groups, sympathizers, and supporters are determined to use the Internet and social media platforms to share their radical beliefs and recruitment despite constant shut down, suspension of their platforms, and possibly being prosecuted.

Do you have any post-PhD plans lined up for the future?

I am currently on the job market. I am applying for faculty jobs in sociology, criminology, criminal justice, computational social science and data science, postdocs, and industry research jobs.

Any additional thoughts you would like to share?

If you are interested in interdisciplinary research, go for it. Do not shy away from conducting research that synthesizes ideas from many disciplines. For example, my research interests lie at the intersection of social, network, computer science, and statistics. I examine fundamental questions of violent extremism, cyberterrorism, social networks, and the social implications of algorithms and automated technologies. Integrating theoretical perspectives and methods from diverse disciplines reaches a broader audience while looking at the bigger picture.

Networking. Use technology to network with scholars from your field or research interest. For instance, I set up a professional Twitter account and followed people with similar research interests. Through Twitter, I have shared my work, got to be an invited speaker for a panel on technology and the future of terrorism, joined a panel on terrorism for the American Society of Criminology conference. I just became aware of a “Sociologists Who Study Digital Things” on Slack, where I get to see what others are studying, job openings, network with potential collaborators and referrals. These are just some of the stuff you can do online for professional development and networking.