Past Events

AIFL Annual Symposium

Date: Thursday 24 September – Friday 25 September 2020

Replay all presentations from the event here.

The Aston Institute for Forensic Linguistics (AIFL) hosted its Annual Symposium in September 2020. Due to current restrictions, the event was hosted virtually, yet still attracted a vast number of delegates.

The five centres of AIFL showcased the diversity in cutting-edge research taking place. Each of the centres had the opportunity to introduce themselves, their speakers and the exciting research projects their teams are currently working on.

The two-day online event featured numerous presentations and poster sessions from the Institute’s researchers. Throughout, AIFL facilitated rich discussions and created exciting interactions between delegates from law enforcement legal and academic backgrounds. The poster sessions, delivered digitally through a new online environment, allowed attendees to experience the ‘social spaces’ whilst interacting over coffee (albeit homemade!) and discussing the topics raised.

The event was exceptionally well attended with over six hundred delegates from across five continents signing up for the event, and around three hundred delegates attending the busiest session.

Discursive orientations towards age in police interviews with 17- and 18-year-old suspects

Date: 8 Oct 2020
Speaker: Dr Annina Heini
Presentation link

This presentation was based on Annie’s recently completed PhD research, which investigated discursive manifestations of the statutory child-adult divide in police interviews with 17- and 18year-old suspects. In the context of her police interview research, Annie is particularly interested in language ideologies in connection with age, the administration of the police caution, and the discursive role of appropriate adults in interviews with vulnerable suspects.

Linguistics Approaches to Online Sexual Crime

Date: 6 Mar 2020
Prof Tim Grant and Dr Nicci MacLeod launched their new book 'Language and Online Identities: The Undercover Policing of Internet Sexual Crime.'

Forensic linguistics is at the cutting edge of the undercover policing of child sexual abuse on the open internet and dark web, and language and identity is a fundamental part of this. The authors have drawn on their extensive experience in training undercover officers to develop innovative methods in identifying the creation and performance of online personas, crucial in detecting identity disguise online.

Incorporating the launch book: Grant, T. & MacLeod N. (2020) Language and Online Identities The Undercover Policing of Internet Sexual Crime. CUP

10:00 - 11:00 Dr Nicci MacLeod, Northumbria University. Where it all Began: Linguistic Training for Online Identity Assumption

11:00 - 11:30 Dr Andrea Nini, University of Manchester. Authorship clustering for the dark web: Methodological and theoretical remarks.

11:30 - 12:00 Daniela Schneevogt - AIFL, Aston University. “we were just really in love”: referentiality and clusivity of the pronoun ‘we’ in a Dark Web community of child sex abusers.

12:00 - 1:00 Prof Nuria Lorenzo-Dus, Swansea University.  Developing Resistance against Online Grooming: From Linguistic Analysis to Practice-based Interventions.

2:00 -2:45 Matt Sutton, Senior Manager, National Intelligence Hub (CEOP), National Crime Agency. The linguistic contribution to the investigation of online sexual crime – Operation CACAM, the investigation into Matthew Falder.

2:45 - 3:15 Dr Emily Chiang, AIFL, Aston University, Dr Dong Nguyen, Alan Turing Institute and Prof Jack Grieve, University of Birmingham. Rhetorical analysis of suspected child sexual offenders’ interactions in a dark web image exchange chatroom

3:45 - 4:45 Prof Tim Grant AIFL, Aston University Linguistic. Prof Tim Grant identities: theory and practice in dark web child abuse fora.

4:45 Book launch celebration – with light refreshments.

Abstracts for academic talks

Dr Nicci MacLeod - Northumbria University. Where it all Began: Linguistic Training for Online Identity Assumption

The monograph launched during this event is the end product of almost ten years of involvement in the training of online undercover operatives (UCOs) in the linguistic aspects of identity disguise – a task that is required as part of a wide range of types of investigation, including those into the online sexual abuse and exploitation of children.

This talk tracked the development of linguistic input into this kind of training from the initial discussions and back-of-an-envelope thoughts on what might be the most relevant theories and ideas for trainees all the way through to the theoretically sophisticated approach to identity that has arisen from these research projects. Heeding Robert’s (2003) plea that “the design and implementation of [applied linguistics] research needs to be negotiated from the start with those who may be affected by it”, Nicci described how she worked in close partnership with practitioners in order to ensure the collaborative research was maximally impactful. Drawing on observations of trainee UCOs preparing for a live operation and a series of trials her and her team had run in which trainees had their performances assessed prior to and after linguistic training, Nicci demonstrated the measurable changes that her research and input has made to professional practice.

As well as addressing some stereotyped beliefs about the way particular groups of people use language online, linguistic input based on Nicci and colleagues’ research also raised trainees’ awareness of higher levels of linguistic analysis, such as pragmatics and interactional patterns. Nicci showed this enhanced knowledge being put into practice in a simulated operation carried out by an experienced UCO as part of the project. She concluded with some thoughts on how the work influenced her team’s thinking around language and identity, a theme picked up by Professor Grant in the afternoon session.

Dr Andrea Nini – University of Manchester. Authorship clustering for the dark web: Methodological and theoretical remarks

An important problem in dark web investigations is how to link usernames that belong to the same person in web forums. Combining data that belongs to the same offender can significantly help investigations but often the only evidence available to link usernames is linguistic. In the field of computational authorship analysis, the task of grouping texts in a corpus by authors is called ‘author clustering’ and it relies on cluster analysis techniques using frequency of linguistic items as features. This task is related to ‘authorship verification’, or the task of confirming that a certain text was written by a specific suspect, which is one of the most difficult tasks in authorship analysis. This talk covered the methodological problems in applying these techniques to dark web forum data and propose some theoretical solutions. Andrea included remarks on how studying this problem can shed more light on our understanding of linguistic individuality for forensic linguistics.

Prof Nuria Lorenzo-Dus, Swansea University. Developing Resistance against Online Grooming: From Linguistic Analysis to Practice-based Interventions.

The internet enriches children’s lives, providing learning, creative, entertainment and social opportunities. Yet it has a dark side, too, potentially exposing them to abuse and harm. This includes sexual grooming, known instances of which are increasing rapidly and with many more cases going unreported. Children who have been / are being groomed via the internet may not tell anyone because they feel ashamed or guilty; some may not even realise that they are being groomed given offenders’ manipulative tactics.

How can we better tackle the problem of online child sexual grooming? In this talk, Nuria advocated the importance of understanding both offenders’ linguistic modus operandi and child victims’ discourse within what is essentially a communicative process of entrapment. Firstly, she introduced the data (pseudo- and real- online grooming conversations) and methods (primarily Corpus Linguistics) that over a series of inter-connected studies have enabled the identification of complex communicative patterns within online child sexual grooming. Secondly, she focused on key results regarding offenders’ strategic use of ‘vague language’ and children’s attempts to resist grooming. Finally, Nuria discussed two interventions geared towards combating online child sexual grooming: a hybrid Artificial Intelligence - Corpus Linguistics tool for detecting groomer language and a prevention-oriented training resource for professionals designed to raise their awareness of groomers’ communicative tactics and children’s discourse in response to them. Both interventions are based upon multi-disciplinary academic work, integrating Linguistics, Computer Sciences, Criminology and Public Policy, and are being developed in collaboration with stakeholders, including child protection and law enforcement agencies.

Daniela Schneevogt, Aston Institute for Forensic Linguistics. “we were just really in love”: referentiality and clusivity of the pronoun ‘we’ in a Dark Web community of child sex abusers

Criminals use the Dark Web to build networks for conversation and support (Holt et al. 2015). For those with a sexual interest in children, the internet facilitates the abuse of children, the distribution and consumption of illicit imagery and the exchange of ideas and advice (Durkin et al. 2006; Cohen-Almagor 2013; Holt et al. 2015). Such communities create dense linguistic layers of meaning which are difficult to penetrate by persons outside the community. Drawing on Bell’s (1984) notion of audience design, Van Leeuwen’s (2013) social actor framework and Scheibman’s (2004) concept of clusivity, Daniela’s study aimed to investigate how users of a Dark Web child sex abuse forum use the first person plural pronoun ‘we’ by carrying out a two-fold annotation for semantic referents and clusivity. In these texts, first person pronouns are used in a much wider array of contexts than first anticipated. In addition to the well-studied variation in clusivity – that is, differences between exclusive and inclusive referents – large variation across two further axes was identified: group and function. For example, abusers normalise their actions when referring to both a child and a forum user together as ‘we’, portraying children as active and equal partners in those pseudo-intimate relationships. Scheibman’s (2004) clusivity categories are therefore not sufficient in explaining the different pragmatic functions of the pronoun ’we’ in child abuse forum communication. Applications of these findings include online undercover policing, such as infiltration of crime-related fora, as discussed by Grant and MacLeod (2017, 2020).

Dr Emily Chiang, Aston Institute for Forensic Linguistics, Dr Dong Nguyen, Alan Turing Institute, Prof Jack Grieve, University of Birmingham. Rhetorical analysis of suspected child sexual offenders’ interactions in a dark web image exchange chatroom

Child sexual offenders regularly convene in online spaces to exchange illicit imagery and advice about abusive practices (Davidson & Gottschalk, 2011; Westlake & Bouchard, 2016). In response, law enforcement agencies around the world are increasingly deploying undercover officers who pose as offenders to gather intelligence and evidence on offending communities. Currently, however, little is known about how offenders interact online, raising significant questions around how undercover officers should ‘authentically’ portray the child sexual offender. Emily presented a linguistic description of authentic offender-offender interactions taking place on a dark web image exchange chatroom. She analysed the rhetorical moves and strategies of chatroom users and visualise users’ move structures using Markov chains, enabling us to compare the linguistic behaviours of specific user ‘types’. Emily and colleagues found that the predominant moves characterising this chatroom were Offering Indecent Images, Greetings, Image Appreciation, General Rapport and Image Discussion, and that these moves (and others) were employed differently by users of seemingly greater and lesser offending experience. Based on their findings, Emily suggested some practical take-home messages for undercover agents working in this domain.

Prof Tim Grant, Aston Institute for Forensic Linguistics. Linguistic identities: theory and practice in dark web child abuse fora

Tim addressed the idea of a linguistic individual, and how as individuals we draw on an array of resources to perform a variety of online identities. In a theoretical aspect of this discussion Tim explored how the resources we draw on enable but also constrain our identity performances and he showed in practical terms how this has two implications for online undercover officers (UCOs). The first implication is that in attempting to perform as another person the most convincing route will be to acquire the resources that a target individual draws on in their identity performances; and that these resources can be identified through a detailed linguistic analysis of chat logs (as demonstrated by Dr MacLeod in the first session). The second implication is that undercover officers need to learn to suppress those resources which they commonly use to perform their everyday identities where these resources are not also shared by the targeted individual. Failure to achieve this suppression of identity resource can lead to the performance of hybrid identities somewhere between the UCO and their target identity. Tim illustrated these points with a series of examples from dataset used in the book he was launching that day, and he concluded by considering next steps in linguistic research in assisting police in the investigation of online sexual crime.

Police interviewing between guidance, training, and 'as it happens': Insights from conversation analysis

Date: 27 Feb 2020
Speaker: Liz Stokoe & Charles Antaki, Loughborough University

In this presentation, Liz described her collaborative research that, across multiple institutional settings, shows how written guidance, standardized scripts and protocols are actually turned into talk. Shed analysed multiple datasets including police interviews with alleged suspects and victims, crisis negotiations, doctor-patient interaction, and simulated client/mystery shopper encounters. She showed that a) the empirical reality of apparently scripted talk often differs wildly, and consequentially, from the script or guidance and b) effective practice that can be identified by conversation analysis seldom finds its way into guidance. She discussed the ethical and epistemic implications of simply not knowing how apparently guided, scripted, standardized is manifested in real talk.

I could kill them, I said. I didn’t say I would’: Threats on trial – the role of intent in cases involving threatening communications.
Date: 13 Feb 2020
Marie Bojsen-Møller, PhD fellow, Department of Nordic Studies and Linguistics, University of Copenhagen, Denmark

Link to presentation

Threats constitute what may be termed an illicit genre (Bojsen-Møller, Auken, Devitt & Christensen, 2019),, since they are often socially and sometimes legally proscribed (Fraser 1998; Gales 2010; Muschalik 2018). The (il)legality of a threat is dependent on legislation (Solan & Tiersma 2005), and, notably, on the emphasis legislation and precedent have placed on threateners’ intent.
However, being ultimately a psychological state, the intent is notoriously difficult to assess (cf. Hurt & Grant 2018), and in court, defendants may claim that they never intended to threaten. Furthermore, they can use more or less persuasive linguistic strategies to distance themselves from the language crime they are accused of committing, particularly if the wording of the threat was indirect. Indirect threats are particularly difficult to prosecute and penalize, since reasonable doubt may be raised regarding their intended meaning, possibly allowing the sender a recourse to ‘plausible deniability’ (Solan & Tiersma 2005).

In this seminar, Marie Bojsen-Møller discusses her new paper, which takes its starting point by comparing the role of ‘intent’ (mens rea) in Danish, UK and US legislation or case law on threats:

  • Danish Criminal Code, § 266

  • British Offences Against the Person Act 1861, Section 16

  • US ‘true threat’ case law: e.g. Watts v. United States 1969; Elonis v. United States 2015; Perez v. Florida 2017).

 Bojsen-Møller further examines several Danish court cases which have threatening messages at the heart of the cases and focuses on the appeals to defendants’ intent as argued by prosecutors, defence lawyers, defendants and judges.

Q&A with Marie Bojsen-Møller

1. Is there a specific threat letter or message you came across during your research that really stood out to you? And why?

I would say the teenage girl who on Instagram wrote “I’ll be the next school shooter LMAO watch out”. That was one of the threats that stuck with me the most because there is an aspect of youth, just trying to test the limits of discourse. It’s difficult to say what their purpose really was, if it was just to be a part of a group that has a very extreme way of talking to each other or if it was the beginning of thoughts about actually doing a school shooting. We don’t know, and that really interests me because a lot is at stake. It’s the difference between ignoring someone who’s going to kill people or over-reacting and maybe creating people who are angrier because she must be angrier now that she has been in jail for a long time and she was kicked out of her high school and so on. So yeah, there’s a lot at stake. There’s a lot on the line.

2. In your opinion, what is one of the most common misconceptions laypeople (in DK) have about threats and threatening communications?

People misconceive threats, believing that the only force they have is the potential of something else happening, which is the thing they are threatening to do. Threats in themselves are also an act of violence, a linguistic act of violence. I think that’s very important to understand because it underlines a very basic thought in linguistics, that languages act. It’s not something abstract where you don’t do anything. That’s why I like to show these examples where people say “I didn’t do anything” and they did. I’m not saying they were going to do something else, but they did try to intimidate someone and that’s a crime in itself in many countries.

3. Are lawyers in DK aware of the work forensic linguists do and its benefits for the legal system?

No, not at all. Lawyers know a lot about language, we just know other aspects of it, and it’s difficult for them to understand. It’s not the same as saying that we know more about how to do a proper cross-examination or something; It’s more something about analysing the ways that language works.

Devoted Users – the 2019 EU elections and gamification on twitter

Date: 6 Feb 2020
Speaker: Francesco Grisolia, University of Pisa
Link to presentation

Hybrid political campaigns can be influenced by gamification strategies, that is the use of video game elements in non-gaming domains. In recent years, gamification has been applied to the realm of politics with the intended goal of increasing voter engagement and citizens’ participation.

In Francesco’s talk, he presented the results of collaborative research on the last EU elections campaign in the Italian Twittersphere. He focused on the online activity of Matteo Salvini, former Italian Interior Minister and leader of the League (Lega), and a specific social media contest, Vinci Salvini! (“Win Salvini!”), whose second edition was launched three weeks before the 2019 EU Elections.

He discussed the impact of such gamification strategy, clarifying how it increased the volume of Salvini’s retweeted tweets and, in turn, his message visibility. Francesco identified a small but particularly active group of suspect users, which he labelled as devotees for their commitment and intense retweeting activity in the run-up to the elections. They share some characteristics (account creation date, type and amount of followers and friends, etc.) and, most fundamentally, reveal an ambivalent nature. On the one hand, they show a quasi-automated behaviour, systematically liking and retweeting any content shared by Salvini. On the other hand, they manifest distinctive human features (type of replies). Being driven by political affinity and the potential reward of a social media contest, we think they represent a peculiar type of crowdsourced political agents.

Rhetorical moves, online grooming and the performance of offenderness

Date: 30 Jan 2020
Speaker: Emily Chiang, Aston University

One of the most unfortunate consequences of the internet is that child sexual abusers have various online channels through which to communicate with victims and other offenders. Emily’s talk demonstrated the use of move analysis (Swales, 1981; 1990) as applied to two types of online child abuse interaction and how it might assist in online police investigations. Emily first considered offenders' moves in 'grooming' conversations, revealing patterns in move use, which pointed to individual ‘styles’ of grooming. Secondly, she focused on interactions between suspected offenders and undercover police officers posing as offenders, showing how interactants' moves work towards the performance of the offender identity, and how this performance compares across the two groups.  


Non-Violent Direct Action and the Courts: Necessity, Remorse, and the Right to Protest

Date: 23 Jan 2020
Speaker: Graeme Hayes 
Link to presentation

The criminal trials of direct action protesters are in many ways extraordinary episodes within the criminal justice process. Here, the protection of philosophical belief required by the ECHR and Human Rights Act 1998 vouchsafe the sincerity of the defendants’ commitment: as a result, remorse displays are not central to mitigation decisions, while defendants may seek to justify their actions through pleas of necessity. 

Yet socio-legal discussion of these issues is often absent, and discussion of necessity are characteristically highly normative; whilst practical questions of the protection of philosophical belief at trial typically focus on sentencing, at the expense of a focus on the conduct of the trials themselves. Graeme used a forensic sociology lens to the trials of activists, to discuss how justification and excuse, remorse and recidivism are constructed, and how processes of separation and remediation are performed and imposed in the courtroom space. He applied this lens to two recent high profile activist trials in the English courts: the trial of the Stansted 15 and the appeal trial of the Frack Free Three. In both cases, the charges brought against the activists were much more severe than those typically experienced by non-violent direct action protesters. Yet, both ultimately resulted in lenient sentencing, thus apparently upholding ECHR-protected rights to freedom of speech and assembly. Through ethnographic observation and discussion of legal decisions, he argued however that the conditions and conduct of these trials, particularly concerning questions of remorse, necessity, duress, and good character, effectively serve to narrow rather than uphold the expression of Convention freedoms. Specifically, he argued that the emphasis on remorse in the Frack Free Three ruling, and the interpretation of necessity as duress (and its subsequent effective unavailability) in the Stansted trial effectively forces activists to divest their political beliefs as a cost of securing their liberty. As such, he argued that these prosecutions and the terms of their outcomes should be considered serious acts of the chilling of dissent.