BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield. Brad Galloway and his Life After Hate colleagues, specialize in personal one on one intervention like social workers or drug counselors. But in a country where tens of millions of citizens expressed sympathy with the January 6, insurrectionists, such a methodology, as they say in Silicon Valley, may not scale. To have a wider impact, others have undertaken messaging campaigns designed to neutralize right wing propaganda, conspiracy theories and calls to action before they take hold. The language to describe one of these programs is striking: attitudinal inoculation. Heading that research is Kurt Braddock, a professor of communications at American University and author of Weaponized Words: the Strategic Role of Persuasion in Violent Radicalization and Counter Radicalization. He says that deradicalization is a tougher slog than intervening at an earlier stage.
KURT BRADDOCK When we talk about counter radicalization, we're really talking about preventing somebody from going down that radicalization path in the first place. But when we talk about de radicalization, we typically are talking about bringing somebody back from having already gone down that rabbit hole, maybe somebody who's already engaged in violence or is on the verge of engaging in violence. Most of my work centers around counter-radicalization, trying to keep people from becoming violent in the first place, because I think most research would show that it's much easier to prevent somebody from becoming a violent extremist than bringing them back from becoming one.
BOB GARFIELD Last year, you published a study called “Vaccinating Against Hate: using attitudinal inoculation to confer resistance to persuasion by extremist propaganda.”
KURT BRADDOCK Research has shown for decades that if you introduce an idea to somebody in the same way that a body is introduced to a weakened version of a virus, that people will build their own counter arguments against that idea in the same way the body builds antibodies against that virus.
BOB GARFIELD Give me an example of the vaccine and the actual pathogen.
KURT BRADDOCK Sure, so the way that it's been studied historically was typically done in things like health communication. So you want to tell teenagers not to smoke? The idea would be to tell them, listen, we know that you don't smoke now, but people just like you have been convinced by these other people to smoke cigarettes. So the first step is to raise the perception of threat that their beliefs and attitudes aren't as set as they think they are. Following that, that's when you introduce the weakened "pathogen." You tell them, here's the different arguments you're going to get. Somebody may tell you that smoking is cool. Somebody may tell you that smoking will help you get girls, et cetera, et cetera. And what decades of research has shown is that when you do that, people will develop their own counter arguments against smoking.
BOB GARFIELD So what does it look like in the political context to not about adopting smoking, to look cool and get girls, but in the face of violent extremism, say, or just fringe political thought?
KURT BRADDOCK So in the study and what I'm actually doing in real world populations now, or at least testing in real world populations, is you identify the source of messages that are resonating with different audiences that are vulnerable to the messages or that are targeted by terrorist groups for recruitment. So, for example, right now, a lot of far-right groups are doing recruiting on online channels. What you do is you find individuals who would be targeted by QAnon but haven't gone down that rabbit hole yet, for example. And you would say, listen, we know that you don't follow the QAnon ideology, we know you don't think that you need to get violent to stop some electoral steal that Donald Trump has been talking about. We know you don't have those attitudes, but people just like you had been persuaded by these arguments in the past, so that's the first step. You make them think that their beliefs and attitudes aren't set in stone as they think they are. Then you say, well, listen, there's this group out here who's going to tell you that there is an underground cabal of pedophiles who need to be taken out and executed, which is part of the QAnon ideology, so you introduce them to these arguments and then you step away. And what my research has shown is that a couple of things happen. Number one, the individual will counter argue against the propaganda more. Number two, they'll be angrier at the extremist group. Number three, they'll perceive the group to be less credible. And most importantly, number four, they'll say they have less intention to support the group in any way, whether it be ideologically, monetarily or with armed support.
BOB GARFIELD Now, as I've watched the rapid evolution of right-wing extremist organizations and QAnon. In particular, I've often thought if these people had any idea how the government actually works and how the Internet and particularly social media trap them in filter bubbles, echo chambers, whatever you want to call them, that they would be far less prone to embracing these ridiculous or toxic ideas. How is what you're describing better or different from just plain civic and media literacy?
KURT BRADDOCK Well, I actually think they're part and parcel of one another. And one of the things that I've argued for as a critical component of counter radicalization is media literacy. Because although it differs culture to culture, generally in Western cultures like the U.S., the U.K., we really don't like when we know somebody is trying to persuade us of something. And that's what inoculation is based on. Another kind of theory or perspective called the persuasion knowledge model that says, look, these people are trying to use you to their own ends and here's how they're doing it. You kind of show them how the sausage is made. And when you do that, the research would suggest that people would be less inclined to be persuaded by those sorts of arguments.
BOB GARFIELD When you did the first study, what surprises did you have along the way?
KURT BRADDOCK One thing that stood out and it was disappointing at first until I found out what was really going on, was that inoculation doesn't directly stop somebody from engaging in terrorism or intending to support violent extremism. You have to inoculate against somebody's beliefs. And with respect to the ideology first before you can inoculate against behavior itself. So in statistical terms, what I found was that there's no direct link between inoculation and preventing behavior. You have to decrease their perceptions of the extremist group’s credibility. And that's what stops them from reporting intention to engage in any kind of violent extremism. The big finding that really surprised me was that when you inoculate people, they actually feel active anger against the group trying to persuade them.
BOB GARFIELD Your funding is from Department of Homeland Security, which gives me the shpilkes because, you know, I'm not sure that I want the government messaging me on any matter of political ideology, no matter how twisted.
KURT BRADDOCK And I can understand that concern. Many agencies recognize that their engaging in counter messaging, has all kinds of negative effects. There's one program that's--it gets beat up all the time because of how poorly it went. But back in 2013, there was a program where the Department of State tried to engage in counter messaging on its own. And it was an abject disaster like they got in flame wars on Twitter. There was a boomerang effect where people were actually defending ISIS, things like that. So the government has learned very slowly that the government maybe shouldn't be in the business of counter messaging, but that doesn't mean that they can't help support individuals and groups to work with individuals and groups on the ground that are engaged in counter messaging in their communities.
BOB GARFIELD Kurt, thank you.
KURT BRADDOCK Thank you very much, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD Kurt Braddock is a professor of communications at American University.
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