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How inoculating Americans against radicalization can fight domestic terrorism

The January 6th insurrection made clear the increasing dangers of domestic extremism in the U.S. But with social media spreading online disinformation at an alarming rate, how can law enforcement and experts hope to stop the flow of white supremacist propaganda? Some believe teaching people how to recognize false information and stop them from becoming radicalized in the first place is the best strategy. NewsHour Weekend’s Zachary Green reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Earlier this month, President Biden released the country's first national strategy for countering domestic terrorism—which he called "a stain on the soul of America." The threat of domestic extremism is not new in this country, but the insurrection at the u.S. Capitol on January 6th has amplified the issue.

    Some experts say that law enforcement strategies alone won't stop right-wing radicals. They believe a better strategy is stopping people from being radicalized in the first place. NewsHour Weekend's Zachary Green has more as part of our ongoing series, "Exploring hate: antisemitism, racism and extremism."

  • Zachary Green:

    In the 1990s, Germany was facing a surge in violent incidents involving white supremacists.

  • Daniel Koehler:

    The skinhead movement came up, large-scale attacks against refugee shelters, for example, using arson attacks or just beating up immigrants or refugees on streets and political opponents. They tried to dominate whole parts of cities or even villages with that strategy.

  • Zachary Green:

    Daniel Koehler is the director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies — or GIRDS. He says that while violent right-wing extremism had existed in Germany since after World War II, it was only in the 90s that public outcry forced the government to take action.

  • Daniel Koehler:

    This was actually when the German government decided to put significant amounts of federal funding into non-governmental civil society-based preventing and countering violent extremism programs, mainly targeting adolescents, teenagers, the youth in general that were considered to be, you know, frustrated with the lack of perspectives coming from a broken family background.

  • Zachary Green:

    Since then, the German government has poured resources into public-private partnerships to prevent far-right radicalization from happening in the first place.

    Methods developed from these partnerships include teaching students about democratic values, providing mental health and job counseling, and educating youths on how radicalization works–such as in this play performed for German teens.

  • Daniel Koehler:

    The targeted groups with these tools are usually teenagers, families, communities, social workers, mental health service providers to educate them, to provide them with the necessary tools and knowledge to respond to a potential case of radicalization when they might come across such a case.

  • Zachary Green:

    Germany spends roughly $180 million a year on its civil society programming. Koehler says that while far-right extremism is still a problem in Germany, the U.S. Lacks the same infrastructure in dealing with its own rightwing radicalization issues. And 2017's "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia added a new layer of complexity to the problem of white supremacy in the U.S.

    Cassie Miller is an analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

  •  Cassie Miller:

    Unite the Right really revealed the limits of mass mobilization and organizing through these mainstream political channels. A lot of the groups were infiltrated by law enforcement, by antifascists, and by journalists. A lot of them got caught up in lawsuits that are still ongoing and that really, really hampered their organizing abilities. They didn't feel like the political system offered them the tools that they needed to create the kind of revolutionary change that they wanted to see in society.

  •  Zachary Green:

    According to a report published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups operating in the U.S. Between 2018 and 2020 actually dropped by almost 18 percent.

    But Miller says that doesn't mean white nationalists have become less numerous or less dangerous. Instead, many have retreated to online communities on social media.

  • Cassie Miller:

    It used to be that white nationalist extremist groups had to meet people in person. They had to give people their literature in person. And now the bar has been significantly lowered and they can reach a much, much wider audiences with way less effort. And what we're seeing is that there's a proliferation of white nationalist and extremist propaganda across the internet and often on platforms that are really not interested in regulating the kind of content that people place on them.

  • Zachary Green:

    Miller says that online propaganda can have real-world consequences. For example, the shooter in the 2018 attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh was inspired by racist and antisemitic conspiracy theories on the white supremacist social media site Gab. And the culprit in the 2019 El Paso shooting posted an anti-immigrant manifesto on the online message board 8-Chan minutes before he opened fire.

  • Cassie Miller:

    If you look at the kind of content that those attackers were posting online or the manifestos that they posted, that kind of content is all over the Internet. And it's really become normalized through repetition. When you believe that, then violence becomes a much more kind of reasonable solution in your mind.

  • Zachary Green:

    Even the failed January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was fomented by online misinformation about the 2020 election. Some of the insurrectionists even used the fringe social media sites Gab and Parler to trade information on what streets to take to avoid the police and what tools to bring to break into the Capitol.

    In response to the attack, this March, the Department of Homeland Security made $20 million in funding available for local communities to develop programs to prevent domestic violent extremism.

    But that's still only 11 percent of what Germany spends annually on countering radicalization amongst its own population–which is just a quarter of the size of the U.S.

    In fact, just last year, in the face of the worst rise in far-right crime since 2001, the German government approved more than $1.2 billion in anti-racism programming over the next three years.

  • Daniel Koehler:

    The United States is behind most Western European countries, 20 to 30 years at least when it comes to building these infrastructures. You cannot just jump start then or kick start them in a matter of months or even years. You have to build these networks, these programs. You have to build relationships, and you have to test really how certain methods work in a certain community. And these infrastructures, they need to grow organically.

  • Zachary Green:

    Cynthia Miller-Idriss is researching how to do that very thing. She heads up the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab, or PERIL, at American University in Washington, DC. It's modeling its methods for preventing extremist violence on Germany's.

  • Cynthia Miller-Idriss:

    They have models for how to do this in a more community-based way. And so a lot of what I'm trying to do is, is learning from those approaches and adopting them here in the States. It is kind of possible and manageable and something that you can be empowered to do within your own community instead of waiting for the government to solve it, which is, I think, what a lot of people are feeling right now.

  • Zachary Green:

    PERIL creates teaching and parenting guides on recognizing online propaganda and also produces videos, like this one about a man becoming part of an online extremist group.

  • Video Narrator:

    Misinformation on gun control was circulating wildly, including rumors that the National Guard was going to go door-to-door to confiscate weapons…

  • Zachary Green:

    Their research shows that, on average, those who watched it became more skeptical of information on social media and alternative news sites and more likely to fact-check news stories before trusting them.

    Miller-Idriss likens these methods to inoculation against disease. By teaching people about how to recognize far-right propaganda and misinformation, they can build up a resistance to it when they encounter it online.

  • Cynthia Miller-Idriss:

    It turns out that people don't like to find out that they're being manipulated and they're– they're able to then build their own counter-arguments against it so that when they do encounter it out there in the real world, they're able to have resistance to it. And once you see that manipulative technique, you can recognize that wherever you encounter it. So it works like a vaccine, right? It creates immunization or inoculates people against the propaganda wherever they encounter it.

  • Zachary Green:

    But Miller-Idriss also says that the U.S. has a long way to go in building the infrastructure to effectively confront far-right radicalization.

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