BOB GARFIELD Ross Frenett is co-founder of Moonshot C.V.E., a private consulting firm that also deploys counter messaging but not with a general vaccine. Moonshot treats the disease of extremism with something closer to monoclonal antibodies, targeted messages derived from specific pathologies of individual subjects, not from blood samples, but from another reliable diagnostic source.
ROSS FRENETT Never underestimate how much people just put into their search engines. We found specific search strings of people saying, you know, I want to build a bomb and kill X or more subtle ones where they're just exploring ideology. The advertising industry is a multibillion dollar industry based on understanding what people are looking for, and what we've tried to do at moonshot is harness that technology to get people that are at risk of hurting themselves or hurting others, the material that they might need to walk them back from that.
BOB GARFIELD In 2016, they undertook a pilot for 8 weeks to try to reach people searching online about ISIS. Moonshot, built a checklist of ISIS's own selling points and knocked them down one by one. Not by producing slick counter messaging themselves, but by harvesting existing authentic content from the Internet.
ROSS FRENETT They were talking about things like their legitimacy, their military success, and also this idea of a utopian life. For each of those we then use found content to try and undercut that. So when we were looking at the utopian ideals, we said, well, OK, let's go and find some material from Syrian citizen journalists from Iraqi citizen journalists to see what life is really like under ISIS rule, and make sure that folks that are thinking of traveling there can see that. Similarly, when you talk about their glorious military success, there's quite a lot of stuff out there on military failures that ISIS have had even in 2016, those existed. Everything from bloopers of these folks just not knowing how to use their weapons through to actual defeats that they'd suffered themselves. So with each of these narratives, we were trying to do is find ways, not to directly attack it, and, you know, like a government that kind of say, here are the reasons your narrative is incorrect, but to more subtly just serve things up to these folks and say, hey, you're interested in what's going on in Syria, let's show you.
BOB GARFIELD Is there any evidence the minds were changed or behavior?
ROSS FRENETT We know that we reached over 300000 individuals who otherwise would have been consuming extremist content. And then likewise with a small subgroup of those, we actually took a look at some of their YouTube patterns to see pre- and post-engagement with our content. Were they engaging more or less with ISIS material. And although it was a small sample size, we did actually see that there was a tendency to engage less with ISIS material after our campaigns. We've seen similar results with other campaigns where the amount of searching that's been done by those who consume the material has differed slightly from those who haven't, but again, I'm not going to go on here and claim that this is a silver bullet. A lot of what we're trying to do here is fill the space. So as far as I'm concerned, if someone spends three minutes watching our material and that's three minutes, they could have been spending, watching ISIS material and chalking that down to a win.
BOB GARFIELD All right. So, let's flash forward five years to now, and you are teaming with the Anti-Defamation League on the use of the redirect method on domestic right wing extremists. Can you give me the outlines for that enterprise?
ROSS FRENETT What we've learned in the years since is that direct attacks on ideology can often be ineffective and can sometimes even lead to something called the backfire effect, where if you attack someone's beliefs, actually believe it more rather than less. In this deployment, the aim, instead of being to undermine the ideology, instead of being to undercut it in a direct way, was to try and calm the temperature of a whole bunch of information that's come out recently that a lot of people charged in the capital insurrection had a bunch of other problems, financial problems, psychosocial problems, et cetera. So someone who's gone to the point of going in front of a state capital, getting themselves armed to the teeth, isn't going to buy into an ad that says everything's hunky dory, go home. That's not going to work. However, what may resonate is something that's totally nonideological, that just asks them how their life is going, and encourages them to reach out to mental health charities or to other organizations that can listen to them. The way to make people feel heard is not necessarily to attack their beliefs, but just to make sure that the things that are important in their lives, whether it's money trouble, personal problems, whatever else, are important to someone.
MAN 1 I feared what I didn't understand. And that fear turned to hate and violence. Hate is like a cancer that will eat you alive.
MAN 2 Until there's nothing left to forgive.
NARRATOR If you or someone you know is in the dark world of hate takes you to. We can help, no judgment, just help. [END CLIP]
ROSS FRENETT We look for folks that are able to resonate with the audience. So do they look like them? Do they sound like them? We also try and look for the cadence of the videos. So, you know, if somebody is looking for neo-Nazi death metal, there is no point in giving them a lecture. You’ve got to serve that person music. When I look back over some of the campaigns we used to run against ISIS in 2016, sometimes we would serve people looking for military videos, videos of them arms, giving lectures. And like, of course, people clicked away from that because it's dull, so you've got to meet people where they are.
BOB GARFIELD Is there a subgenre of which I'm not aware of peace and reconciliation death metal?
ROSS FRENETT Yeah. It's funny you say that we find ourselves with a bunch of this stuff, whether it's jihadist anarchy or a kind of neo-Nazi death metal or whatever else, trying to find material that hits the same kind of emotional core, but without the racism.
BOB GARFIELD One side lesson from the January 6th insurrection is that many people without affiliations to a militia or to a hate group or to QAnon can still participate in acts of political violence. They were at a protest. And next thing you know, they're, you know, surging inside the Capitol building. It just feels like violent ideologies are becoming increasingly mainstream on the American right. How does that affect the work of Moonshot if, in fact, you are trying to do de radicalization, but the radicalization is edging ever more to the center?
ROSS FRENETT The United States isn't alone in this, stuff that we've looked at includes violent ultranationalist Buddhist mobs in Sri Lanka. We've seen similar things happen with Hindu extremists in India. That kind of societal radicalization and the fact that people can get carried away is one of the reasons that we focus just so heavily in the run up to the insurrection and the aftermath of the insurrection on reminding people of personal responsibility and reminding people that actions have consequences. We've heard a lot of people who participated in the insurrection saying afterwards that they kind of got caught up in the moment. They didn't understand. They thought it would be OK, they just got worked up. And that's why a lot of our messaging, I think, does have to focus in on, not the ideology necessarily, but just a reminder that what you do now could impact the rest of your life. So take a breath, consider whether or not following this particular organization at this particular moment is exactly what you want in your life. Most people who think that through the answer is going to be no.
BOB GARFIELD All right. So I can tell from your accent that you are Irish, you're also young, and I wonder if you have any personal or familial connection to the troubles that makes this work of particular interest to you?
ROSS FRENETT Yeah, there is a bit I mean, I'm probably the last generation of Irish people that grew up with bombings on the news every day. To be clear as well, I grew up in Cork, which is the other end of the country to where the conflict was primarily taking place. But I will say that family members of mine were involved in political violence. That history and the connection to it has always made me empathize with anyone conducting this kind of stuff, because having seen it in my own country, having seen it in my own family, I'm very aware that good people can sometimes be drawn into less than good activities.
BOB GARFIELD What was it that kept you out of the IRA?
ROSS FRENETT I think that maybe three reasons I didn't get involved. One was I was so interested that I started consuming as many books as I possibly could about the IRA. But then I started reading books about loyalists and I heard a lot of the same kind of emotional messages. I heard a lot of the same desire to defend your community that I'd read about when I was reading about the IRA. And that started to make me step away from it as something you'd want to get involved in and just get fascinated by this phenomenon.
BOB GARFIELD It's hard for me to believe that that would work on Oath Keepers.
ROSS FRENETT You never know that. You never know. We have seen some strange things happen over the years. Any and all journeys you can imagine take place, because ultimately extremists, whether they be Oath Keepers or jihadis, are just people and, you know, lives change.
BOB GARFIELD Ross, thank you.
ROSS FRENETT Thanks so much Bob.
BOB GARFIELD Ross Frenett is co-founder of Moonshot CVE.
Coming up, when governments get into the business of de radicalization. This is On the Media.
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