Annenberg hosts talk on countering extremism

Catherine Liang | Daily Trojan

In the wake of terror attacks in Europe this summer, tensions have risen in the international community as countries around the world face a daunting task : counteracting violent acts organized by terrorist groups.

On Wednesday, the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism hosted an event to discuss how social networks have become platforms for extremist organizations to spread their agenda, and what can be done to counter this shift.

“The number of people espousing hate on social media is rising,” said Todd Helmus, a senior behavioral scientist from the Research and Development Corporation.

Helmus and Erroll Southers, a professor in the practice of governance at the Price School of Public Policy, led the conversation.

Helmus, who specializes in Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE, defined it as a field that focuses on proactive actions to counter efforts by extremists to recruit, radicalize and mobilize followers to violence. He explained that observing the rise and fall of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria can allow researchers to understand the challenges of countering extremism online.

ISIS, Helmus said, is the first extremist group to use new media technologies on such a grand scale. He explained that the group’s use of Twitter, among other factors, was instrumental in allowing it to reach out to the public in ways that no other terrorist group previously had.

A major turning point, Helmus said, was when Twitter began to remove pro-ISIS accounts. This significantly reduced the flow of pro-ISIS content on social media. Several groups and organizations are also working to eradicate ISIS’ ideology, from anti-extremist production companies to community outreach programs.

“Having a local approach means that culture is always baked in,” Helmus said.

Helmus added that a problem with some earlier attempts to counter extremism was that organizations and the U.S. government did not have an approach that was sufficiently refined. Southers noted that program workers were not attached to the communities and therefore could not reach their audience as effectively.

“The Somali-American community in Minneapolis is very different than the one in Columbus, Ohio,” Southers said.

Helmus cited movement to private messaging apps, which is much more difficult, if not impossible, to intercept. He added that many have also voiced concerns about the anti-extremist programs, saying that they are too focused on Muslims.

Helmus added that both  right-wing and left-wing extremists in the United States are growing bolder online.

This issue, Helmus explained, has not received enough attention and funding.

Technology companies, however, are beginning to help address these new issues. Twitter, for example, is moving toward removing racist content on its platform, according to Helmus.

Ultimately, Southers said, the bigger modern threat might be white nationalists.

“They are now outperforming ISIS in every social metric online, both in Twitter follower accounts and tweets per day,” Southers said.