How to fight extremist psychology with social media

How to fight extremist psychology with social media


JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: the dangers of domestic
terrorism, extremism and efforts to counter its use of social media. The attack in Charlottesville underscored
just how real this is. As Miles O’Brien explains, experts who study
the psychological and technological underpinnings of extremism say neo-Nazis and Islamic terrorists
are cut from the same bitter cloth. It is this week’s Leading Edge and a co-production
with PBS’ “NOVA.” HUMERA KHAN, Executive Director, Muflehun:
We want to make sure that people can openly talk. MILES O’BRIEN: At the University of Illinois-Chicago,
on this summer morning, a small group of determined people gathered in a classroom to figure out
what they can do about terrorism. HUMERA KHAN: My name is Humera Khan. And your name? MILES O’BRIEN: Humera Khan was schooled as
a nuclear engineer. She holds four degrees from MIT. But now she is doing something perhaps more
complex, and most certainly less predictable, than splitting atoms. In sessions she calls viral peace, she tries
to find ways to battle extremism online using social media to counter the narrative. HUMERA KHAN: The idea is teaching them how
to recognize when they are being manipulated, and then teaching them the skill sets for
how to respond, should they respond, when should they respond, and using social media
to come up with their own campaigns. MILES O’BRIEN: She thinks stories effectively
told on social media can motivate people to turn away from violence. Participants identify flash point issues and
underlying causes of extremism. The problems are posted, sifted and prioritized. Then they work on their own campaign. The winner gets $1,000 to implement the idea. But this is not just about Islamic terrorism. It’s about all kinds of hate and extremism. CHRISTIAN PICCIOLINI, Co-Founder, Life After
Hate: My name is Christian Picciolini. I’m the co-founder of Life After Hate. MILES O’BRIEN: Christian Picciolini is a former
white supremacist skinhead, who was the lead singer in a racist heavy metal rock band. He ran an organization focused on identifying
white supremacists who might be convinced to walk away, de-radicalization. CHRISTIAN PICCIOLINI: Big place for people
who are involved in hate groups to leave. I think it’s tough for us as a country to
hold a mirror up to ourselves, to address a problem that’s inherent in our own population
and our own citizens. PROTESTERS: Jews will not replace us! MILES O’BRIEN: The ugly scene in Charlottesville
made it difficult to avoid that mirror. DONALD TRUMP, President of the United States:
Charlottesville is a great place that has been very badly hurt. MILES O’BRIEN: President Trump was reluctant
to blame white supremacists and neo-Nazis for the violence, and offered support for
their protest march to save a statue of Robert E. Lee. DONALD TRUMP: I think there’s blame on both
sides. MILES O’BRIEN: Former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard
David Duke said he was thrilled by what the president said. CHRISTIAN PICCIOLINI: What’s scary about Donald
Trump and what’s happening is not that he’s creating racists. I don’t believe that. I believe that these people existed. He’s created a safe place for them to now
vent. MILES O’BRIEN: And he has retweeted messages
from neo-Nazis, giving them a global audience. J.M. Berger is a fellow with the International
Center for Counter-Terrorism. J.M. BERGER, International Center for Counter-Terrorism:
If you are somebody who believes that white people are being subjected to genocide, and,
you know, that desperate measures are required to preserve the existence of the white race,
and you get Donald Trump to retweet your content, then, suddenly, you have an audience of millions
of people that you didn’t have before. MILES O’BRIEN: Berger studies the links between
extremism, terrorism and the Internet. He has carefully tracked the rise of online
recruitment and propaganda created by Islamic terrorists. J.M. BERGER: Social media has inherent advantages
for extremists that mainstream movements don’t have. And ISIS is only the first group to realize
this. And we’re going to see many others. I think we’re in for a decade or more of significant
instability that can be attributed to the interconnectedness of the world. MILES O’BRIEN: Social media companies have
had some success thwarting the online threat from ISIS, because the message is so extreme
and so violent. J.M. BERGER: It is easier for these companies
to step on them. White nationalists, while they are marginalized
in our society, they are still very much embedded in our society. And they are currently enjoying a pretty good
run of mainstreaming some of their beliefs. If they are not advocating for violence directly,
it’s a much harder problem. CHRISTIAN PICCIOLINI: And until we can classify
white extremists as terrorism, it won’t have the same resources, it won’t get the same
priority, and won’t get the same funding to fight it. MILES O’BRIEN: The Trump administration has
gone in the opposite direction, killing a $400,000 grant for Christian Picciolini’s
Life After Hate Group. PROTESTERS: You will not replace us! MILES O’BRIEN: It was part of a broader effort
to cut federal funding for campaigns against domestic terrorism. But should the Trump administration treat
white extremism differently? Not according to University of Maryland psychologist
Arie Kruglanski. ARIE KRUGLANSKI, Social Psychologist, University
of Maryland: There’s a universal process that prompts people to the extremes, prompts them
to deviate from the mainstream and move to the fringe. And the same process applies to neo-Nazis
in Germany, Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers, Muslim extremism, or the militia, the far right in
the United States. MILES O’BRIEN: Kruglanski says extremist groups
thrive during times of uncertainty, offering simple black-and-white answers in a world
filled with many shades of gray. Their messages, transmitted via Twitter, Facebook
and the like, offer something they crave, certainty. The psychological term is cognitive closure. ARIE KRUGLANSKI: At the psychological level,
it’s the very same dynamic that gives us ISIS, because ISIS also thrives on a very clear-cut
ideology that promises the world and promises order and fame and structure, and that’s what
Trump promises as well. MILES O’BRIEN: Terrorism expert J.M. Berger
believes the Internet is hastening the polarization of our society, and he says there is no easy
way to stop it. J.M. BERGER: I don’t think that there’s a
solution is going to come around soon. I think it’s going to take quite a while,
and I think that identity-based extremists are going to get the most benefit out of these
technologies. And I think that we’re going to see the things
we have seen with ISIS with other groups. MILES O’BRIEN: But the proliferation of the
Internet and social media cuts in both directions. And that is what has brought these people
together in Chicago. CHRISTIAN PICCIOLINI: While there is a lot
of misinformation and a lot of recruitment to extremism happening online, it also serves
as a wonderful platform for counternarratives, for people to reach others with an alternate
message to what the extremists are proposing, and also to link the facts, so people can
do their own homework. MILES O’BRIEN: Humera Khan strongly believes
in promoting a counternarrative, stories that can motivate people to turn away from violence. HUMERA KHAN: We are talking about a minuscule,
less than a percentage, which means we have the numbers on our side, if we can actually
mobilize them to actually do good, not just watch, but actually step up and say, OK, I
have a role, and I will do it. MILES O’BRIEN: Extremists have always been
among us, and they have always been small in number, but, these days, everyone owns
a global megaphone. HUMERA KHAN: Because anyone can have a role
in bringing others in to the community. MILES O’BRIEN: In Chicago, I’m Miles O’Brien
for the “PBS NewsHour.”

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