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Amid a spike in violent extremism around the world, a communications researcher is experimenting with a novel idea: whether people can be “inoculated” against hate with a little exposure to extremist propaganda, in the same manner vaccines enable human bodies to fight disease.

The idea is based on something called attitudinal inoculation, a technique that aims to build people’s resistance to negative influences by exposing them to weaker forms of those influences.  Developed in the 1960s, the method has been used to help teenagers resist peer pressure to start smoking.  

In 2018, Kurt Braddock, a communications professor at Penn State University, conducted a study to see whether attitudinal inoculation could be used against extremism.  The results, published in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence in November, look promising. 

Data showed a ‘very cool story’

The data came back showing a very, very cool story about how inoculation works in this context,” Braddock said in an interview.“

I found that if you inoculate people against extreme right-wing propaganda or extreme left-wing propaganda, they tend to argue against that propaganda more than if you don’t inoculate them,” Braddock said.  “They tend to feel more anger towards the source of the propaganda than those you don’t inoculate. And they tend to think that the extremist groups that produce the propaganda are less credible than if you didn’t inoculate them.”

Two-step method

As with other attitudinal inoculation studies, Braddock’s experiment on 357 participants — randomly selected from a survey website — entailed two steps.    

The first involved warning them that the propaganda material they were about to encounter had been very effective in changing the views of people such as the participants. “

That makes them think that maybe their beliefs and attitudes aren’t as secure as they think they are and if they encounter this propaganda it might change their minds,” Braddock said.  

Counter arguments

Then they were given counter arguments.  For example, they were told that exhortations to violence could be refuted by arguing that “protest is fine but violence doesn’t solve the issue,” Braddock said.

Once “inoculated,” the participants (except for a small control group) were invited to read propaganda material produced by two extremist groups — the now-defunct left-wing Weather Underground and the neo-Nazi group National Alliance — and asked to register their reaction.

The response exceeded Braddock’s expectations: those who had been inoculated were more likely than the control group to reject both groups. “

The differences were significant,” Braddock said.

Caveats to findings

As significant as they were, the findings came with caveats. One reviewer noted that the study used propaganda from a group that is no longer around. Another questioned the reliability of such experiments, noting that exposure to propaganda is just one risk factor for radicalization.  A more important question is whether the lab-tested method has real-world application.    

Braddock acknowledges the limitations.  To test out his idea in the real world, he said he plans to conduct follow-up studies on young people who are actively targeted by extremist propaganda.

‘Real-world testing’

That’s the next step,” he said.  “I’m really curious to see what shakes out in real world samples.”  

Jesse Morton, an-ex jihadi who runs a support organization for former extremists, said the study has some potential use. Social media companies and educational institutions could potentially use it to develop preventive tools, Morton said.”

There’s a lot of push on [social media companies]  to do something about the right-wing extremist threat in general, but I think schools and universities are those that are most set up for benefiting from it,” Morton said.

Google pilot program

Under pressure to clamp down on violent content, social media companies have rolled out a variety of anti-extremism tools in recent years.  In 2017, Google launched the “ReDirect Method,” a pilot program that prompted viewers searching for extremist videos on YouTube to watch more positive content.  

In some ways, Morton said, the Redirect Method is similar to the anti-hate vaccine Braddock is testing.  “

We can’t just think about prevention and isolation,” Morton said.  “We have to think about the realm of prevention in countering violent extremism, as if it is directly connected to every facet of the radicalization process.”

 
 
 
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