Cynthia Miller-Idriss explores the rise in far-right radicalization through the physical and virtual spaces where hate is cultivated. November, 2021.
Javed Ali: Good afternoon, everyone. Thanks so much for joining us today and we're so honored and excited to be here in conversation with Cynthia Miller-Idriss from American University. For those of you who don't know me, my name is Javed Ali, and I'm currently an associate professor of practice here at the Ford School at the University of Michigan, and this conversation today is supported by the Ford School. So our conversation will explore the key topics of radicalization, recruitment and domestic terrorism. And we're really excited to have Cynthia's perspective on that.
JA: And let me just get into Cynthia's background for a bit for those who may not be as familiar with her work. So Cynthia is currently a professor in the School of Public Affairs and in the School of Education and runs the Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab known as PERIL in the Center of Excellence at the American University. Before her move into the School of Public Affairs in the fall of 2020, she was a professor of Education and Sociology at American University. Professor Miller-Idriss is a well known expert, has testified before Congress, regularly briefs policy of security, education and intelligence agencies in the United States and other stakeholders around the world.
JA: She is also the author of several books, the most recent being "Hate in The Homeland: The New Global Far Right" from Princeton University in 2020 and she's also authored a few books before that. She's got a great background, academic background in Sociology and Education and has used that to leverage those insights now into the world of domestic extremism and domestic terrorism. She also is a proud graduate of the University of Michigan and has her Master's degree and PhD from the school of sociology, but also her Master's degree from the Ford School of Public Policy here.
JA: So always great to see another Ford alum prospering outside of university. So, Cynthia, welcome so much, great to be here with you. And just in terms of the run of show for today, we're gonna cover several backgrounds in our... Cover several issues in our conversation, we're gonna dive in a little bit about more into your background and how you started. Initially into the field you did look at academically and then how that has translated over into the world of domestic extremism and terrorism, then we'll have some questions and conversation about your insights on domestic terrorism and how we're doing, especially relative to other countries.
JA: We'll also look at the role of social media, and you've done a lot of research and analysis on that, and then we'll hopefully wrap up our conversation with some discussion on policy solutions. And then hopefully the last 10-15 minutes we'll take some questions and answers from the crowd, so a lot to get through.
JA: But with that, Cynthia, again, welcome. And let me just ask you quickly, so you started your career initially on the academic front in a very different field of sociology and education, and then over the last few years that's shifted over into more of the national security role. So can you just share with our listeners and viewers how that started and what lessons you've learned along the way now that you've moved in these different issues and areas of expertise.
Cynthia Miller-Idriss: Sure. Well, first of all, thank you for having me, Javed, thanks for hosting this. And as you know, personally also as a U of M alum, there's nothing better than coming back home to a place where you were a student, and I also had the opportunity to speak with students in a class today in-person. It's just such a privilege to be here and really an honor, so really enjoying my visit back into campus. So my background, as you said, is unconventional in the National Security space. I think that's probably an asset, and one of the reasons why I'm busy right now is because it's unconventional.
CM: But what I mean by that is I consider myself an accidental expert, essentially, I did not seek out... It was not a strategic decision to pursue a path in national security. I was a German Studies undergraduate major, I double majored in sociology and then I went into my PhD and policy background degree programs here in order to study alternatives to college for young people. And I was really interested in the German vocational system. So that's what I was studying. I was doing a dissertation on transitions to adulthood and trying to understand how young people transition in an alternative time and an alternative structure, the way they have in Germany, where two-thirds of young people go through not a college-bound track, but through a vocational track.
CM: But when I landed to do my dissertation, there was an upsurge in right-wing extremism. I ended up spending 18 months as an ethnographer embedded in schools where teachers were really struggling to deal with the issue of resurgent right-wing extremism. And so I became a kind of expert on school-based responses to hate. And after another book, two or three books that related to those issues, one of them was really tracking the mainstreaming of extremism, aesthetically, the changing encoded symbols, the way that iconography was being used to draw people in, and that got turned in just two months before Charlottesville happened.
CM: So that's when things really changed for me, where people in this country started asking me to explain what was happening with the global and interconnected kind of resurging far right. So that's what happened. It's been a little bit like whiplash and I keep saying, I wish my expertise were irrelevant again, I'd like it to go back to being irrelevant, but as long as it's not, I'm happy to continue to try to explain what I've learned.
JA: Thanks, Cynthia, for sharing that. And again, you've got a really interesting background and set of skills that I would argue makes you really unique in this space. So let's dive into the domestic terrorism landscape the way you see it. And again, you've been looking at this or different features of it for several decades now. So first question, what do you think is most striking about it now, in the context of what we're seeing in the United States, versus when you started, even if the lens you were looking at may not have been as focused on the national security side going back?
CM: Yeah, I think the biggest change over the past couple of decades, for me on the domestic extremism front, is the... What I and other colleagues in the field now call a shift to post forms of extremism, which means that although groups do still matter, they do produce a lot of propaganda, they sometimes get involved in plotting bad actor plots, malicious, for example, unlawful malicious and there are white supremacist groups, including lots that are on trial right now in Charlottesville. So groups matter, but the vast majority of exposure and radicalization to extremist content in the US and globally right now is not happening through groups itself, but rather through online radicalization within networks.
CM: So it's not just totally lone actors all by themselves either, but they're working in networks, they're exposed in networks, they are exposed through a broad range of platforms, and I know we're gonna talk about social media later, so I won't go totally down that pathway. But I can't emphasize enough how different that is from 20 years ago, or even 15 years ago, when in order to get engaged with extremist ideas, you had to seek them out or you had to be invited to come join it.
CM: Now, it's just much more coincidental that people will likely encounter them when online gaming or in other kind of hobby sites online where those ideas come to them. So it's no longer a destination to be sought out, it's just something you encounter in your everyday lives, whether that's on a paper flyer on your college campus or in an online game. And so that changes the way that people can be drawn in and recruited, the gateways through which they access these groups. And I think that's been the single biggest change that I would say has really transformed the landscape of how extremism has emerged.
JA: So we will pick up on that topic of social media, but I wanted to further get into the landscape now and what may continue to drive it in different ways going forward. So as you've already noted, social media is a big one, and we've got some additional questions on that, but can you also provide some insights on other, what I would call key drivers, that you think have fueled this threat to the degree that it exists right now?
CM: Yeah, I think one major thing that's happening is demographic change. And demographic changes in reality. So there are these things that are happening, the country is becoming less white, it's becoming more diverse. It's changing in lots of other demographic ways, and the way that propaganda disinformation is using that fact to present a sense of threat, a sense of existential threat to many Americans who might not otherwise be encouraged to see it that way, but then are receiving it that way. And so this is a global issue and there's a global conspiracy theory called the Great Replacement, the idea that demographic change is being orchestrated for some nefarious purposes, power-grabbing purposes by somebody else, some elites or some ethnic minority group, for example.
CM: So that's a major change. A major driver is that there is actually factual things happening, but then the spread of disinformation can exploit those facts and those changes. But we also have... And this is really important, I'm gonna use... I'm gonna be very careful about my terms here, but there is a sense of precariousness that is bigger than there was 10 or 15 or 20 years ago, and by that, I don't mean economic security exactly. Although there is some economic insecurity and changing economic outlooks for people, but it's a sense of precariousness, which is the sense that something could be taken away from you or that you could lose something.
CM: So for example, one really important study that I often cite in the European contact shows that people are not more likely to join the far right if they grew up unemployed... Sorry, if they are unemployed. They are not more likely to join the far right if they are actually unemployed, but they are more likely if they grew up with an unemployed parent. So there's an emotional sense of something could be lost, the fear, the knowledge, and so we have been seeing that often, it's a sense that, whether that's a sense that a white majority country will be taken away or it's propaganda about Second Amendment rights or it's disinformation about an election.
CM: There's often a through line there that something could be taken away from you and I think that's playing on this sense of precariousness. And then the third thing, I think, is just the changing landscape of how easy it is to disseminate propaganda and disinformation in ways that make it harder for people to understand what's real and what isn't real. And so we have just seen a broader range of belief in conspiracy theories over the past few years even, that it's hard to believe that people... That that many people might believe some of these conspiracy theories, but we've seen it.
CM: And so we know that people are encountering them more often and that there's more of it circulating than there was before, and so those... It's not just, again, the paper mailings that had to go out through listservs or something from extremist groups in the '80s and '90s, but it comes across in really sophisticated iconographic representations that look pretty legitimate and then people start to believe them. And so those are, I think the three things, a sense of precariousness, the reality of demographic change that gets weaponized by propaganda and then just the changing amount, the actual amount of disinformation and propaganda that people get confronted with in their everyday lives.
JA: Thanks, Cynthia, for sharing those observations. Let me ask you a relatively provocative question. Do you think that January 6th was the culmination of this rising tide of anger and grievances and discontent and this broadened and fragmented limit, or because of the drivers you laid out and other ones, do you see this threat and enduring for quite some time? And is there a way to put some boundary on how long do you think that heightened period will last?
CM: Well, I wish I had a more optimistic answer for you, but I don't think it was a culmination of something, I think it is more like the beginning of something, the beginning of a moment, it's just that what that moment becomes is evolving even as I speak. We're seeing such transformations, I would say, in the willingness to use political violence even in tremendously spontaneous ways. And that I think is what we're at the beginning of. So I do think it was a moment in which a lot of different groups and individuals motivated by completely different things in ordinary circumstances came together.
CM: I think of it as a kind of lowest common denominator moment where they normally would never agree in real life or be able to unite across those boundaries, and as we know, the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville tried to unite the right in 2017, they failed. It didn't work, they ended up more disintegrated after Charlottesville, organizationally speaking, than they were before, and I think this showed that actually you can get united across a spectrum of conspiracy theories and white supremacists and unlawful militias and QAnon and Proud Boys and a toxic mix of groups and a whole lot of people who were just ordinary voters, Trump voters who were mobilized, who all believed something about disinformation about the election and really felt compelled and called upon to thwart what they believed was a real threat to democracy.
CM: So I think, that's where I think we're at the beginning of something, and we have been continuing to see the spontaneous political violence and willingness of just ordinary individuals to be violent in strange and unexpected ways, and I expect that that's going to continue for several years, I think that we're not... There's a kind of genie out of the bottle situation now where it's going to be difficult to work purely on the preventative side to stop it. But I'm also an optimist at heart, and I don't think that this is... We're not headed toward the end times, I don't believe that this is irreparable, I do think that we can pull it back and I think focusing on democracy itself and on how to strengthen and protect democracy from the threats that come at us from the fringes is one strategy that can lead us into a better path.
JA: Thanks for that, Cynthia. And again, it's a tough question, but I figured you'd have a really good answer on that. Let's shift gears a little bit to the role of social media, and this is something that is absolutely an area of strength for you. So much of your recent work is focused on the impact of social media and fueling far right extremism within youth sub-cultures in the United States and abroad, and your 2020 book "Hate in The Homeland" that I talked about before dives into this in some really unique ways. So can you provide some of the key findings for the book and how, from what you assessed and studied, how social media-driven radicalization in the US compares and contrasts with other countries like Germany and elsewhere in Europe?
CM: Great question. So the way I think of this is that social media is part of the story, but it's part of a broader online ecosystem of platforms, of places and spaces where you spend time online and ways that you engage online, all of which get exploited and weaponized by extremist groups, and they've been really effectively weaponized on the far right, especially in the white supremacist side, because they're so youth-centered and they've been used in a way that is, what I often call the weaponization of youth culture. So there are several different things going on here, one is just the vast number of places and spaces where it happens, and so that's from online gaming platforms to the live streaming of certain kinds of combat sports tournaments that are set up by people with extremist intentions to draw people into the street fighting that they believe has to be perceived, the race wars that they think are coming. So there's online gaming platforms, there's YouTube channels that are dedicated or used by extremist groups or propaganda that's created by individuals to, on cooking shows or on makeup tutorials, everyday places where you could be in there on a platform looking up a DIY, do it yourself kind of channel and then stumble because it gets recommended to you by an algorithm, somebody else watched it, stumble accidentally into extremist content that's embedded into something else.
CM: So it's not just like, "Oh, I have to go looking for this dark video that is promoting an extremist message," it's almost like grooming, as we think of it, it's introduced in really gradual and seductive ways through other types of places and spaces where people might spend time, so that's one of the things. But it's also, we have amplification of messages, so the live-streaming functions are being used to turn a local terrorist or violent act into a kind of global performance, and we've seen that repeatedly with the terrorist actors who have live-streamed their attacks, including in the Christchurch New Zealand, for example. We see extremist groups using the online ecosystems to crowd source and fundraise and support, sell merchandise, but also get donations on ordinary donation platforms that then find out, it gets reported and they shut them down, but it's like a constant whack-a-mole kind of a thing.
CM: So there's just a wide range of ways. And then the last one I'll say is that through the use of online culture, and I talked to a class about this earlier, the use of humor and irony and wit and satire often through memes and through jokes that get told even through emoji or other kinds of jokes and things online that then get... Evolve very organically into offline violence. And so we've seen this with the so-called Boogaloo scenes which are... It's a code for civil war that started as a joke among teenagers online, we've seen it with the Pepe the Frog, co-opting of a Pepe the Frog cartoon that evolves through complicated ways into a fantastical, mythical white ethno-state called Kekistan, and there's a flag which then waved at Charlottesville and waved on January 6th.
CM: So we see this offline and offline intersection in important ways, and I think the online world can mobilize, can radicalize, can introduce people, can recruit and livestream and amplify, but ultimately it still translates into violence in the real world, in the physical world, in the offline world, because it's not just trolling and harassment, it's also mass shootings and plots that we're worried about and seeing interrupted. So it's that intersection, I think, that is really important to understand.
JA: So on this issue of the different aspects of extremism that are either supported or fueled via social media platforms, what can you say about... Again, from the context of your own research and study, what seems to be similar to dynamics playing out in the US and Europe, and where are there key differences in this social media war?
CM: Yeah. Great, great question. So I would say, first of all, it's global, this is happening almost everywhere, we really... It's not just a US problem, but the US has an outsized proportion of the terrorist violence, the incidents and the deaths. So when you look at something like the global terrorism index, which has shown, I think a 250% increase in far right terror over the past five years across Western Europe, North America and Oceania, Australia and New Zealand, about half of those incidents and half the deaths or so are in the US, even though there's a lot of other countries represented.
CM: So the US has a bigger problem than most, some of that is due to gun control issues and the easy accessibility of weapons, which leads to greater lethality. But the problems of social media, of online interconnection, not only exist everywhere, but they're related to each other. So two of the last terrorist attacks in Germany were either their manifestos were either written in English or they were livestreaming in English for a global audience, even though they're attacking immigrants or people deemed not to belong to their version of what constitutes Germanness within their own nationalist context. So we see far right actors, white supremacist actors take inspiration from terrorist acts in Oslo, that inspires Christchurch and then Christchurch inspires a terrorist actor here in El Paso.
CM: So, there's direct inspiration and sharing of tactics and procedures and bomb making strategies. And I'll say, and I know this will be of interest to you with your work on Jihadism, it's not only even just globally among white supremacists, but sometimes we see the sharing of those bomb making and tact equipments across extremist ideological domains. So we've seen some, very little, but limited white supremacist extremists engagement on Jihadi Telegram channels, for example, and vice versa. So hopefully, that doesn't continue and that... I have reason to believe, I'm not... I don't think that's a huge threat, but globally, those connections can be made in different ways.
CM: Other countries, there are two things that most, other countries are doing that we're not doing, and which we might not wanna do, one of which is more restrictions on speech and more restrictions on expression, so not just speech, but symbols and non-verbal speech, non-verbal expressions like memes or something like that or video. We have very, very strong free speech protections here, so we probably are not going to see the kinds of restrictions that you see in a place like Germany where you cannot legally display the swastika. Most other countries outside of the US have much stronger restrictions on speech and there's more criminal penalty for expressions of hate speech than we do.
CM: And that's true for social media regulation as well, there's just more regulation, more government regulation of those things, more monitoring, more monitoring and reporting, more transparency to the public, more data collection. And then finally, of course, because this is... I know we'll get into this, but there's also a lot more investment in the prevention side and not just on the security and militarization side of it. So not seeing this just as a hammer, but really investing much more deeply with much bigger resources on the very early, what we even call pre-prevention, just strengthening of democracy and democratic values side of things.
JA: Great. Thanks for that, Cynthia. So we've spent roughly the last 20, 25 minutes talking about different features of the threat, the role of social media and other different radicalization pathways, but turning to the policy front now, and you've already hinted at this, but I really wanna get into some of your thoughts 'cause we are a school of public policy, what do you think the US needs to do more on that front, and what are some possible approaches? And you can tackle this from the legal aspect, the governmental structure aspect, the non-governmental options that are out there, but I think there's a lot to talk about from the solution side of things.
CM: Yeah. Well, great questions. On the federal side, I think there already are some really big strides being made to address some of the things I'm about to say, which is, we need to approach this more as a public health crisis, not just a security one. So what that means is addressing it in a way that situates the problem within communities and intervenes in a way that roots solutions in local and state and regional needs, so meeting people where they are and understanding how to invest in some of the prevention.
CM: I can talk about what that means, but that is a public health approach to how you intervene. You can't just create policy top down and see change on the local level. There's also, I think, more of an emphasis on these community-based solutions, and I'm trying to expand this beyond the security agencies and law enforcement agencies and intelligence side and see this not just as a monitoring and surveillance and arrest and prosecution problem, but also one of, how do you prevent radicalization? And that involves health and human services and Department of Education and other agencies beyond.
CM: And that is something that other countries do a lot of. So they have a dozen agencies involved in these issues rather than just a couple. And we've already seen some of those strides, I think in the Biden administration's new domestic... The strategy on domestic extremism or terrorism, we're already seeing a lot of that language at least, and in the renaming of the Department of Homeland Security's prevention office around community issues and moving into regional locations as they've been doing, we are seeing some of those changes.
CM: But I think that ultimately the real solutions are going to lie on the local and in the community levels. We need this work to be happening in schools, we need it to be happening in municipalities within offices and local unions and employers' offices, we need it in faith communities where, just the kind of lab that I run where we work on prevention every day, we get just over the last month, probably 30 different inquiries from local partners asking us to help, but we cannot do it. We need more people like us testing and designing interventions and scaling them up to local communities, but parents need help, mental health counselors need help.
CM: How do you recognize the problem? How do you prevent people from being susceptible to the propaganda? How do you help them understand what online manipulation looks like? These are things that we have done very well for a generation now, understanding how online predators work, how to protect your digital privacy, we've invested in digital communications work for kids in schools, for example, but they really don't get enough about source integrity or what propaganda looks like and that's true for fifth graders, and it's true for 50-year-olds, we need more help to help people be less susceptible. And so that's at the early end of this, rather than seeing this just as, even in the best case scenario, leaving all the problems to law enforcement to solve. There was a terrorist in Northern Ireland many years ago, who after a failed attempt on the Royal Family to assassinate someone, he said, "That's alright. They have to get it right every time. We only have to get it right once." And I think that's... Ideally you want more investments early on so fewer people go into the pipeline, 'cause even in the best case scenario, we're expecting, on the intelligence and security law enforcement side, perfection, and we know that that's impossible.
JA: From your previous sort of grounding on the academic side in sociology and education, is there a parallel program that exists in at least modern US history that at least the security side of the fence could look at is something that delivered similar results, even if the output or the intended focus was different, or is this something that's gonna have to be completely designed from a whole cloth? And as you and I have discussed before we met today, that this is something that government struggled with for quite a long time, post-9/11, on the Jihadist terrorism front, but I wonder if this just requires a completely new paradigm approach for what we're dealing with now or if there is something in the historical record or archives that would at least, again, give a more focused direction for folks.
CM: So the good news is there are models, I think, but the bad news is I don't think they're in the US. So meaning that, I think other countries, I'd say Norway, Germany, New Zealand, who have all really grappled with research and far-right extremism, particularly in the white supremacist side in recent years with awful attacks, have put forward really interesting national plans that integrate much earlier intervention and prevention and community-based work, sometimes that relies on a lot of trust with law enforcement in ways that are gonna be more challenging in the US, there are cultural differences.
CM: But for example, in Germany where they just invested a billion Euro in their prevention national plan, which is inconceivable to us, it's called... They're 89 specific measures in the plan, and it's called "The 89 measures to combat racism and right-wing extremism." In New Zealand, their Christchurch plan includes a national Center of Excellence on social diversity, inclusion and the prevention of violent extremism. So what these countries are doing, I think, is understanding that you cannot... When one of the drivers is the factual changes demographically that are being weaponized by extremist content and propaganda into a sense of threat, that you cannot really effectively address some of these issues with rising white supremacist extremism and domestic terror without also thinking about, how are we going to live together in communities and as a nation with greater social cohesion, with a greater sense of inclusion and belonging. And I think the US... We saw that in the Biden administration's plan. In their fourth pillar of that plan, if anyone has read it, they do actually recognize that you can't really address some of these issues without addressing polarization and racism and gun control issues. There are other issues that have to be addressed, but we haven't as a country really grappled with, how do you address these issues of social inclusion at the same time as you address these issues of rising violent extremism.
CM: And I think they basically have been divided up into different compartments in most of the agencies that... For resource reasons and expertise reasons, and I think one of the things that has to happen is to find a way to have those conversations. We do have experts on social inclusion, and we also have experts on extremism and radicalization and the more we can bring people like that together to think about it, ultimately... In the last chapter of this book, I open with a question from a German politician who asked about diversity curriculum, he said, "Why do we always talk about this as something that has to be strategic or instrumental or... "
CM: These different reasons. "What if instead, we just ask the question of, 'What would it take for everyone who lives in a country to feel at home there?'" What would it take for everyone to feel at home in the country where they live? And that's a surprisingly hard question to answer, and it means talking about social cohesion and social inclusion while you're also talking about the violent fringe and how those things interact. So that is a hard conversation to have in a security space, it's not a typical conversation to have in a security space, and so I don't know the answer, you've spent your career in that world, and maybe it's not... And that's why maybe the federal level is not the place to have those conversations, maybe it is the local level, community level, I don't know. I know we need to have it and I'm not sure how you make it happen.
JA: Yeah, thanks for that, Cynthia. I know you and I could probably talk for a long time about a lot of these topics. I'm gonna ask you one more question and then we're gonna start getting to audience, Q and A, and I start to see some popping up in the chat box here. So my last question for you, another one of these ones where you may not have a good answer, but I'll ask it anyways. So again, if January 6, in your opinion, was not the culmination of all these different factors and drivers and you don't see the threat diminishing any time soon, do you think if that's indeed the case that... Do you think that now is the time for some deeper kind of governmental reform, at least at the federal level or restructuring?
JA: Because in the aftermath of 9/11 in my own career, as you hinted at, rode that post-9/11 wave of governmental reform and change in counter-terrorism and intelligence and Homeland Security, do you think we're at that moment now, and there's the need for that deep structural form or that it's a different type of issue here in the United States? And this may not... Again, all the solutions may not be from the federal side.
CM: Yeah, what's interesting is I think, yes, I think we do need some reform, and there's a moment for deep structural reform and for rethinking the kinds of expertise that are needed to be in the room for these kind of conversations and for policy solutions. But I also think this is a much trickier moment. After 9/11, again, I wasn't on the side of the conversations at that point, but my sense is there was a much more consensus, bipartisan consensus and agreement, and it was much less politicized, there was a universal agreement about a sense of threat and people moved forward as a nation. Whether that was problematic or not, civil rights violation, there were a lot of problems with the way we actually moved forward, but right now we're in a... It's very difficult, I think, even to reach agreement about how to describe the threat, the vocabulary that we're using, we don't even have the same words in use across our own agencies to describe the phenomenon.
CM: So we've got the State Department and Justice using racially and ethnically motivated violent extremism. We've got Homeland Security and Congress using white supremacist extremism, just as one example.
CM: Now we've got this broader umbrella, domestic violent extremism, DVE being used, but we are still so much even in the... And then global, other countries use totally different words like right-wing extremism or right-wing radicalism in Germany. So there's a lot of work to be done, I feel like, before we can even think about how you would restructure at the government level to address it. I feel like we have to form some consensus about, how do we define the problem and what are some strategies to address it? And one of the reasons why I like the focus on pre-preventative stuff is because usually we can all agree that... It's easier to get agreement actually on the idea that we need to make people less susceptible to online manipulation.
CM: Whether people will agree with what that online manipulation looks like... So it's ideologically neutral, in other words, it's about manipulative, persuasive tactics regardless of the extremist group that are putting them forward. So yes, I do think we need it. I'm not super optimistic right now, just based on that kind of... It's a very difficult time, I think, to find consensus.
JA: Well, your comments that are a little more sort of, I wouldn't say pessimistic, but sort of sober and clear-eyed, then you'd be a perfect government counter-terrorism [0:38:39.0] ____ 'cause that's pretty much the line we take all the time. But anyways, all kidding aside, thanks for sharing your insights, Cynthia, with me. And now we've got several questions in the chat box, hopefully we'll have time to get through all of them, but I'll start with the ones that my colleague, Daniel Rivkin, has put in the chat. So the first one is, "Is the prevalence of these myriad groups due to people looking for intersectional support for issue combinations, or do they tend to be one-issue groups and they have to join as many to get covered?" I don't know if I...
CM: Yeah, I think I understand...
JA: Crumbled that one.
CM: Yeah, I think I understand the question. So I'll say, and I said this in the class earlier today too, so sorry, Joe, if you're hearing this again. But I think a lot of people think about these groups and movements and scenes as just being fueled by people who are really angry and full of hate. And what I find actually is that people are usually drawn into them for more positive or aspirational kinds of qualities, and we see that particularly, for example, with veterans but others as well who are drawn to language in the propaganda that's very clear about a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning, brotherhood, belonging, loyalty, things like, "You'll never be alone, we'll always have your back, that you're a part of something." And so I find the people often... What we often see happen is people are looking for something. They're looking for meaning. They're looking for a sense of purpose. They are depressed. They're online. They are anxious. They're going sometimes to self-help forums and those are targeted. We know that those are targeted with extremist groups. They're playing games online. They're trying to find a sense of community and connect with others and during that process, they sometimes encounter people who have deliberately put out or sharing extremist content, whether those come from groups or from individuals who are sharing that propaganda, and it often meets them in a really gradual way and shows them...
CM: Gives them a sense of purpose. We've heard this from former extremists who say things like, "I found a sense of family there. Those guys were my brothers. I would never let them down." We see real parallels with a lot of gang violence as well where people often feel really deeply a part of something. So I'm not saying that it is a positive thing, I'm saying they're attracted for positive things. With veterans, we often see that they are attracted to the language of defense, of protection, of being patriotic or being a hero, and all of that language is there from extremist groups who say, "You're coming here to defend the Constitution from tyranny," it's just being twisted, right? So it's a twisting of something that has actually drew them into the military in the first place for positive reasons or positive qualities that is being then manipulated by others with real propaganda. So I don't know that my view generally has been, and what I found in research from lots of interviews over the years and a long study of the iconography and propaganda, is that people are emotionally drawn in before they are drawn into the ideology in most cases.
CM: The ideology comes second after they're drawn in for these other reasons. And that's true, that has some parallels with some of the Jihadi and ISIS form fighter recruitment as well, the idea that you're restoring a caliphate, the idea that you're restoring a fantastical white ethno state, a lot of these things are territorial and based on the sense of purity, but they're also calling on people to heroically engage, to protect and defend and support their communities. So that's my experience and my research, and the evidence that I've drawn on has shown that that's how people are drawn in. But we're also seeing really rapidly changing dynamics and who radicalizes, much older right now, more women being brought into it. And so these things are changing as we speak too, so I would say stay tuned for more research.
JA: And even from the number of people arrested and/or charged in the aftermath of January 6, I think that that pool sort of underscores some of those findings that you just mentioned, so I think that's pretty interesting...
CM: Yeah, and when you... Actually, when you're in interviews with them too, people who were interviewed by the media, I think almost everybody I've had an interview with, they really believed, really deeply, that they were the ones who were acting courageously to save democracy from tyranny. So they were deep believers and believed this was their patriotic duty. So it doesn't mean it's not illegal, like belief in disinformation doesn't excuse a criminal act, but it means that they were drawn into it for reasons that we might be able to understand a little bit and direct in an earlier way towards a more positive outcome.
JA: Great. Thanks for that, Cynthia. Okay, next question, and I'll try not to... I'll try to read this one properly. How do we communicate to someone that they may be on the path to hate or radicalization?
CM: Oh, this is a really tough one. But basically, it's like anything else. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It is far easier to prevent somebody from getting engaged with extremism than it is to de-radicalize them. De-radicalization in fact, I think it's extremely difficult, takes years typically, and there's no evidence that can be scaled up essentially. So it's a very individual kind of process that requires a lot of one-on-one intervention, particularly if there are conspiracy theories involved with someone who they know and trust, because they're not gonna trust an outsider who is often then seen as part of the conspiracy. So it's really difficult. What we usually do when we get these queries is refer people to two groups, one called Life After Hate, and the other called Parents for Peace. I have a partnership in my lab with the Southern Poverty Law Center. We have a number of tools that are all free and downloadable, available. I can drop it in the chat in a minute.
CM: It's housed on a special site, on the Southern Poverty Law Center's website, also in multiple languages, that are tools for parents and caregivers that we've tested with parents and caregivers to see that they're effective counselors, teachers, coaches, even other youth... There are people who work with youth. They're all youth-focused in that area, but that help people recognize really early warning signs, because the more they get down that path, the harder it is. So I don't have a great answer for you on how can you communicate, other than that it doesn't help to come at it with facts, generally speaking, and it's better to approach it from... The evidence shows that it's better to approach people with evidence about how manipulation works than it is to tell them about the facts. I'll just give one example without running too much over time.
CM: A lot of our research draws on public health research that, for example, that shows after decades of trying to teach teenagers about healthy eating habits by telling them about the long-term consequences of bad choices for their BMI or diabetes or whatever, it had zero impact on the choices they make about what they eat. But when researchers designed a study that taught them how fast food companies were manipulating them with advertisements to make choices that were not in their own best interest for their bodies, while we're lining the pockets of those companies, that did teach, that did change the behavior of kids and it changed the behavior of boys more than girls. So what we take away from that is nobody likes to find out they're being manipulated, especially teenage boys, and so if you can help them understand more critically why they don't wanna be a pawn in somebody else's game, try to understand what might be behind the motivation of somebody else sharing that propaganda or disinformation, that is a step that can help. But for somebody who's already radicalized, you really have to get professional help.
JA: Right, and we would see that in the Jihadist extremism world in my time in government and air the stories of how families struggled with those very personal decisions about, "Do I inform law enforcement about these possible signs of radicalization that I'm seeing with my family members? And then what are the consequences of making those decisions?" And I think we're seeing the same thing play out now in a different type of threat. Okay, some additional questions populating here. "To what extent can content moderation systems sift through the nuances of types of far-right content and community forums and predict harmful outcomes?"
CM: Yeah, I see the content moderation world, and also tweaks to algorithms, changes to algorithms that try to prevent things like, for example, more salacious content from being amplified or that try to prevent people from being exposed. And deep platforming. These are all really, really helpful tactics and strategies that have been shown to reduce the spread of disinformation significantly, for example, but they're always a Band-Aid solution. To me, anything on the content moderation, de-platforming side is already going to be too little too late by the time... By the time you remove the content, a lot of people have already been exposed to it. By the time you remove the bad actor and kick, de-platform them, they've got 10, 15, 20,000 followers behind who've been following that toxic material that don't get any explanation typically of why that suddenly just... The person left the platform. And so much like the way I see law enforcement and security solutions as the Band-Aid solution at the end, that we wanna reduce the flow, we wanna reduce the bubble that goes into that, we also want that on the social media and the online world. It's exhausting to even think about... It's insufficient what's happening on the content moderation, but there's tens of thousands of content moderators employed across these platforms and they're not able to keep up, and we know real harm is happening. So even in the best case scenario, it's not enough.
CM: It can make a difference, it does make a difference, it's better than not having it at all, but it can't be the only solution, I guess.
JA: So sticking with this content moderation topic and going back to the broader points we discussed earlier about the role of social media, one thing you didn't necessarily address, and I just didn't give you the prompt, but maybe this is a good time to do it now, and this is a really esoteric thing that I'm not sure a lot of our listeners and viewers might know, so it would be great to get a minute or two of your thoughts on this, but where do you see the whole Section 230 debate of the 1996 Communication Decency Act in this broader conversation about the impact on prevention and countering far-right extremism? I know, again, it's a very technical thing, but it's so important.
CM: This question about regulation of the social media companies is an enormous part of what we're talking about here. My personal view on it is that I want someone to be having that conversation, I want really smart people in the room when that's happening, and I still don't think it's gonna solve... Even if the best solution is arrived at, whatever that solution is, it's always still the Band-Aid solution, the regulation. Anything that involves a regulation of content is always going to happen after the fact in my mind. By the time you recognize the bad content is out there and deal with it, it's just really, really... Because of the coding, so in Germany, when I was first studying this stuff, one of the schools outside of Berlin banned the number 88 from display because eight is for the eighth letter of the alphabet for HH for "Hail Hitler" and immediately kids were wearing t-shirts that's said "100 minus 12" or "87 plus one." We see that, that kind of game-playing is constant. It is endemic to the system. As soon as something is banned, Boogaloo becomes Big Igloo, becomes Big Luau, becomes something else, becomes Hawaiian shirts at protest.
CM: So it's not that I don't think it's important, and maybe this is a dodge of the question, is that it's not my area of expertise on the regulation side, and I want someone to do it, but I think it's insufficient no matter what. And my goal is to draw more attention to the much earlier prevention so that we have less content to deal with that's nefarious.
JA: I know, you're more focused on the upstream aspect and the downstream kinda swatting of flies.
JA: Okay, time for probably a couple more questions. Do you see the world of women and domestic extremism increasing, especially in what's playing out in some of these local school board settings, if you've been following the news on some of those conversations?
CM: Yeah, the role of women is definitely increasing. It's been going on for, I would say about eight or nine years, maybe a little bit longer, and I'd say there are a couple different things happening. One is that historically, these domestic extremist groups also have tremendous misogyny going on in them, and sometimes assaults of women, but also just, there's no way for... It's been very difficult for women to be taken seriously within those scenes and movements, and so they have stayed in the background, they haven't played much of a role historically. Now, that's not to say they were unimportant, as somebody has famously said, it's not my line, but somebody was sewing those Ku Klux Klan hoods, right?
CM: Like somebody... There was always a backdrop to what was going on that was enabling these movements. But social media and online platforms have totally transformed that because women no longer have to physically experience the misogyny or the danger of these movements for them, and they have stepped into some real leadership roles on the recruitment and radicalization side by streaming content, by recruiting other women, by producing Instagram accounts that are really aesthetically quite appealing that integrate wellness, that integrate attacks on traditional medicine, but embed those with that conceptions of purity that integrate food and cooking and homeschooling and ideas about traditional life and traditional roles as women and as mothers with content about purity and raising white babies.
CM: So it's drawn out and attracted more women to that, and they're also using the same tactics that anybody builds on social media to attract more followers with really parasocial relationships and content that is appealing to people, like make-up tutorials or cooking shows or something like that. So we've seen a lot more engagement on that side. And then the conspiracy stuff, the QAnon stuff has attracted a lot of women through the yoga and wellness movement as well, along with those intersections with the anti-vax movement. So that's where you start to get these strange coalitions emerging, where anti-vax, traditionally people who might have been more on the left or a little lefty, liberal, hippy, seeing alignment with the kind of anti-government folks who are now in the COVID era, emerging more as anti-vax advocates. And so that's where we've been seeing a lot more the women and we saw that on January 6, very obviously, I think... And we're also finally seeing more women coming out of active duty military, and so because veterans groups are targeted and military is targeted by some of these unlawful militia movements, we would probably also see some of the same trends there as well.
JA: And just as a side note, for those who are students of terrorism both at home and abroad, if you go back to the late '60s, into the '70s to the early 1980s, if you look at the way terrorist groups had leaders, or women who are leaders in those groups or actual operatives and attack plotters and planners, that was definitely much more of a dynamic then across the threat spectrum, both from the far-right and the far-left. I would argue it's more recently coming up now. But going back almost 50 years, even in the United States, the role of women in extremism here was far more pronounced than I would say is now. Okay, time for one last question, and it's a very profound one, but I think it's also... It's a good way to end this conversation here. So the question is, "What can the average person do to help combat domestic terrorism?"
CM: Great question. One, I think is... I would say just a couple of things. One, to be better informed. So again, most of my work is focused on youth over the years because youth have historically been at the greatest risk for violence, and what we see again and again are adults in these communities, parents, caregivers, teachers who recognize red flags far too late, once it's already far down the radicalization trajectory and it's really difficult to turn that person back. So I think staying informed, and again, we have some of these tools on, I'll just say it out loud, it's www.splcenter.org/peril, so the Southern Poverty Law Center's website, and they have a page for PERIL, for my lab, which has all of the tools on it. So we have found that that really does help empirically, help people feel more equipped to recognize red flags and more empowered to intervene if they do know a child. And then there are lots of resources on there for where people can go for additional help.
CM: I think people also need to pay more attention to the way the victims of rising hate are affected and to be more responsive. So we often focus a lot on the perpetrators of rising violence and don't spend enough time looking at targeted groups and the victims of those communities. And so supporting the victims of rising hate and communities who are experiencing that, we've seen really high levels of anti-Semitism, of anti-Muslim hate over the past couple of years and of anti-Asian hate, not only from the white supremacist spectrum, but rising across the board on domestic extremism.
CM: And so I think we often have to focus a little bit more on some of those targeted groups and not just on thinking about how to devote more resources to the perpetrators of hate as well. And then yeah, the last thing, I think thinking about any way that we can reduce polarization, which we know is fueling some of the political violence, and the willingness and support for political violence is probably the thing that troubles me the most right now, because we know that that underpins some of the fringe activity, but it also means that we're more likely to see the kind of violence that we've been seeing at school board meetings or parents getting angry at a teacher for asking their child to wear a mask or just the physical violence and harm against healthcare workers, et cetera, that is not quite in the traditional wheelhouse of domestic violence extremism, but some of which is motivated politically as well. So I think thinking about ways in every small community to reduce polarization and form better ways of protecting democratic values are a positive step forward.
JA: It's a great question to end this conversation on. So Cynthia, thank you so much for spending not only this hour with us, but the day today, you spoke to my class earlier, and I know the students really enjoyed hearing from you. Always great to have Ford and Michigan alums back here on campus, open invitation to come back any time. And thanks to my colleagues at the Ford School, Daniel Rivkin and Erin Flores from the communications and outreach team who really put this together and my colleagues as well from the Weiser Diplomacy Center for just giving me the opportunity to be part of the team here. So with that, thanks again to everyone who watched and listened, and this will also be recorded and uploaded for future viewing and hope to see you on the next policy talk. So thank you again.
CM: Thank you. Go Blue. Thanks for having me.