'Treat Extremism Like It Is a Virus': A Conversation with Cynthia Miller-Idriss on Inoculating Students—and Everyone—Against Hate and Disinformation

In a time of political polarization, a societal reckoning with systemic racism, and isolation and anxiety brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, far-right extremists in the United States and throughout the West are seeking to exploit these crises to radicalize people to extremist viewpoints, particularly through online channels. College students and youth are especially vulnerable—but educators can play a key role in building students’ resilience to extremist propaganda and disinformation.

An expert on extremism, far-right movements, and youth radicalization, Cynthia Miller-Idriss is the director of research at American University’s Center for University Excellence, where she runs the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL). PERIL addresses issues of youth polarization and extremist radicalization through scalable research, intervention, and public education. Miller-Idriss is also a professor in the university’s School of Public Affairs and School of Education and the author of Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right. She spoke with Liberal Education about national and global trends in extremism, how extremists target college students and campuses, and what educators can do to resist and respond to extremist threats.

What are some of the extremist threats that PERIL works against?

PERIL works against extremism across the ideological spectrum. Far-right extremism is currently the fastest-growing and most lethal form of extremism in the United States and throughout the West overall—that is, in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Western Europe. In 2019, far-right terror represented 46 percent of terror attacks in the West, causing 82 percent of terror-related deaths, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace’s 2020 Global Terrorism Index (GTI). In the United States, between 1994 and 2020, right-wing terrorists were responsible for the majority (57 percent) of all attacks and plots, with left-wing terrorists perpetrating 25 percent and religious terrorists 15 percent, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Since 1994, right-wing terrorists have caused 335 deaths in the United States, while left-wing terrorists have caused 22 deaths, and religious terrorists have caused 3,086 deaths (2,977 on September 11, 2001, and 109 in other attacks).

While we should be concerned about all forms of terrorism and efforts to recruit youth into extremist movements, the far right is a particular concern for college campuses right now because of repeated efforts to attack science, elites, and higher education more broadly. For example, the extreme right promotes a conspiracy theory that says higher education is part of a “cultural Marxist” plot in which faculty are trying to inculcate impressionable youth to further Marxist revolutions.

I use the terms “far right” and “far left” because they’re the best bad terms we have available, but I think they’re terrible terms. Some of the characteristic features of far-right extremism—like antisemitism or antigovernment extremism—also exist across the political spectrum. The massive rise in hate incidents against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community during the COVID-19 pandemic is a good example. Those hate attacks are not limited to white supremacists or to the far right but are perpetrated by a much wider range of individuals.

When you look at what the United States is now calling “domestic violent extremism,” you see four sometimes overlapping categories of threats. The first is supremacism, which creates false hierarchies of inferiority and superiority that dehumanize the “other.” The propaganda from supremacists says the people in the other group pose an existential threat, and you have to eliminate them to secure the safety of your family, your people, or your future. The largest and most historical form in this country is white supremacy, but male supremacy has also been on the rise, where you see extreme hatred and mass violence against women. We saw it in the Atlanta spa shootings in March, and we see it in incel (involuntary celibate) violence, like the deadly attacks at a sorority house in Isla Vista, California, in 2014 and a yoga studio in Tallahassee, Florida, in 2018 by men who blame women and society for their lack of romantic relationships. There’s also Western supremacy, which is usually anti-immigrant but sometimes anti-Muslim, and Christian supremacy.

The second category is anti-democratic and antigovernment. This includes proauthoritarian attacks on freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, or the protection of minority rights. Antigovernment extremism in the United States exists predominantly on the far right, but we see these movements across ideologies globally, including secessionist and anarchist movements.

In the third category are conspiracies and fantasies about restoration—myths that an apocalyptic storm or end time is coming. Depending on the group, what comes afterward might be a rebirth into a white civilization, ethno-state, post-capitalist society, or post-tyrannical government. It’s this idea of a utopian future paired with nostalgia for an imagined past, with a nation in its glory, made up of idealized communities of nuclear families headed by male breadwinners.

The fourth category is accelerationism, which cuts across all ideologies and says that things have gotten so bad that we need to bring down all social, political, and economic systems; collapse the government; and start something new. Accelerationism valorizes the use of violence not just as a means to an end but as a preferred path to faster chaos, disintegration, and rebirth. You hear about martyrs making sacrifices to accelerate something that is inevitable because there’s no more reform possible. We saw that in play during the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Some people think only students who might be vulnerable to white supremacist extremism are at risk, but we need to understand that college students may be vulnerable to all these different kinds of extremism. While we need to acknowledge that white supremacy has historically posed the greatest extremist threat in this country, we must simultaneously address extremism and propaganda more broadly. If you see extremism, violence, disinformation, and propaganda—regardless of ideology—as threats to democracy in general and to the thriving, multicultural democracy that we could and should have, then you can start to approach extremism as something that everybody has to tackle together.

What are some of PERIL’s current projects?

Right now, our biggest set of projects is against antivaccine disinformation, and not just in the United States. We’re planning a Spanish-language codebook of antivaccine propaganda to help inform vaccine confidence efforts globally, and we just finished a French-language project for a group overseas. We’re also talking about projects to preemptively combat vaccine hesitancy and disinformation and boost vaccine confidence in sub-Saharan Africa.

We are working on a tool kit for higher education to help campus communities better recognize and respond to polarization and extremism on campuses. The tools will be empirically tested and will be available by late fall on our website at american.edu/centers/university-excellence/peril.cfm. In partnership with the Southern Poverty Law Center, we have published a guide to online radicalization for parents and caregivers, as well as supplementary resources for educators, mentors, and counselors, available at splcenter.org/peril.

We’re hoping our tool kit will be a first step to help educators and parents find resources. Other countries—like Germany, Norway, and the United Kingdom—have more local partnerships or advisory groups, with counselors trained to help people who are vulnerable to extremism, but in the United States, people (including faculty) are very much on their own. As a country, we’re moving in the direction of eventually having local resources to respond to extremism, the same way we have resources for addiction, sexual assault, and depression.

What recent trends have you seen in extremism and radicalization in the United States?

The biggest trend is that the modern far right is no longer best understood as a fringe group phenomenon but as a set of ideas that has spread into the mainstream, through the mass online dissemination of disinformation and propaganda. In the West over the past two decades, only about 13 percent of terrorist acts from the far right that resulted in at least one fatality could be attributed to extremist groups, according to the GTI. That’s similar to the percentage among people who were arrested for the January 6 attack on the US Capitol—about 15 percent were members of extremist groups.

It’s much more common today than in the past for people to be exposed to extremist ideas and then self-radicalize. It would have been much harder to self-radicalize prior to the age of the internet, when you had to go out to the backwoods, join a group, sign up for a mailing list, and become a part of something that had initiation rites and manifestos and clear boundaries around ideology. Now, it’s like a choose your own adventure, pulling together some conspiracy theories, some antigovernment ideas, some white supremacist ideas, some misogynist ideas, and all of that becomes a toxic mix that can spread in much wider ways.

On January 6, we saw a coming together of what used to be a disparate spectrum of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, antigovernment militias, so-called Western chauvinist groups like the Proud Boys, misogynist groups, and QAnon conspiracy theorists, plus ordinary Trump voters. We’ve never seen that before. At the 2017 Unite the Right rally at the University of Virginia, these groups tried to come together, but they failed. But they did come together in a more spontaneous way on January 6, which showed that they could overcome some of that prior fragmentation and infighting.

We don’t know if January 6 foreshadowed things to come or if it was just an unusual incident that will not be repeated. We all hope, of course, that the groups remain fragmented, because then they’re less likely to succeed in anything large.

Overall, the United States has been responsible for half of the incidents of far-right terrorism and about 40 percent of the deaths from far-right terrorism in the West over the past five years, according to the GTI. Our country has a history of racism, white supremacy, antigovernment extremism, and conspiracy theories. The lethality of the incidents is probably attributable to easy access to guns. We have a perfect storm in this country.

How are far-right extremist threats unfolding globally?

Far-right extremism in the West has gone up 250 percent over the past five years, according to the GTI. The United Nations has started looking more seriously at far-right extremism. For a long time, international organizations saw such extremism as the domestic problem of individual member states and not something that warranted international engagement, coordination, or collaboration. That has definitely changed. There is now clear evidence that far-right extremist groups are globally networked and inspire each other. In Germany, two recent extremist terrorist attacks were either livestreamed in English or had a manifesto written in English. Today’s extremists are performing for a global audience.

Where might college students encounter extremist messages?

We are in a moment where everybody—but especially young people, including traditional-age college students—spends more time online. That’s one of the reasons the past year’s social distancing and remote learning and work have been so dangerous in terms of radicalization, disinformation, and propaganda. It’s much easier to lose touch with reality when you’re isolated and staring at a screen all day. And you’re less likely to encounter the ideas of people who think differently than you do, which is one of the great benefits of being on a college campus.

Extremist groups and individuals are using online channels to share and communicate ideas. About 23 percent of online gamers, for example, encounter white supremacist propaganda while they’re gaming, according to a recent study by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). There is a rampant problem with extremist recruitment and exposure, radicalization, and sharing of extremist ideas during gaming chat conversations. We also see it in anime sharing sites and in all kinds of forums. There’s a neo-Nazi vegan cooking show in Germany. We had a colleague tell us that he started watching a YouTube series of ten videos to learn how to install drywall. The first video seemed totally normal, but by the time he got to video three, the guy hosting the videos was expressing anti-immigrant sentiments. Our friend was stuck in the sequence because he had already started the drywall project. He listened all the way through video ten, and by the end, the host was promoting extreme white supremacist ideas. It was a skillful, gradual grooming technique.

The important thing for parents, teachers, faculty, folks on campus, and anybody who works with young people to understand is that no one is immune. People aren’t always seeking this out. They may encounter it wherever they spend time online. Some people will recognize it for what it is, but others won’t. That’s where that idea of “pre-prevention,” or inoculation, comes in.

Can you explain the pre-preventative approach that PERIL uses to combat extremism?

Pre-prevention is the German, post–World War II view that extremism exists in every society and that the best way to thwart it is to strengthen the resistance of everyone in the mainstream. It’s called “defensive democracy.” We use public health language to refer to inoculation, which works best prior to exposure. Instead of trying to isolate and cut extremism out of society as if it’s a tumor, you recognize and treat extremism like it is a virus. You do early intervention and inoculate everyone to build their resistance to a virus of hate, disinformation, and propaganda. Preventative means you’ve identified a target group; pre-preventative means everybody’s in need of it, early and often.

How can faculty and educators apply this pre-preventative approach?

In a recent study of parents and caregivers, PERIL found that educational credentials don’t correlate automatically with the ability to recognize disinformation and propaganda. You need more specific targeted education, such as media literacy education geared toward teaching people to recognize techniques like scapegoating or fearmongering and to understand source integrity and what online manipulation looks like. Instructors can also teach how persuasive extremist techniques have successfully mobilized millions of people to violence in the past and how extremism has been overcome in places like Rwanda, Burundi, South Africa, and Germany.

Educators can do pre-preventative work to address specific propaganda during orientation or even before students arrive on campus. For example, propaganda is circulating online that targets White conservative students before they get to college, telling them that they’re going to be silenced and forced to hide their identities and apologize for being White. Educators can tell students: we’re not telling you what to think, but be aware that someone may be trying to manipulate you in a way that may not be in your own interest. Faculty haven’t been trained to know how to recognize what young people are encountering online and how to respond when students do encounter extremist propaganda.

What other tactics do extremists use to attempt to radicalize college students?

Over the past decade, the far right in particular has managed to present itself as the edgy counterculture to an overly serious and triggered mainstream that can’t take a joke. They use irony, humor, satire, and wit through memes, jokes, and emojis. Even on January 6, we saw “Boogaloo” flags, for example. The term Boogaloo started as an online joke from teenagers about a widely panned 1984 movie sequel, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. It came to refer to the second of anything and is now a code word for a coming second Civil War.

Using humor and memes gives people plausible deniability that it was just a joke but also creates the edgy countercultural feeling of flipping the middle finger to the mainstream and triggered snowflakes on liberal college campuses. It allows people to feel like the ones who are rebelling. That is a powerful emotion for young people in general, especially adolescent boys.

How might extremists target physical college campuses this fall?

It’s hard to know whether the tactics that were in play before the pandemic will continue. Prior to the pandemic, a lot of speakers that spread provocative, offensive, hateful rhetoric were targeting college campuses, trying to get student groups to invite them to campus as a strategy both for promoting themselves and for creating chaos. Speakers would provoke a reaction and counterprotests, often from the left on campus. In a couple of cases, outside antifascist groups that had nothing to do with the campus came to the counterprotests and engaged in violence and property damage. Colleges are often unprepared to understand that they’re a pawn in somebody else’s end game. They are essentially being used, and students are being manipulated.

In situations like the Unite the Right rally, the campus is literally a battleground. It’s a symbolic place that’s being attacked because of its connection to ideas, science, and facts and because of the positioning of college campuses as sites of the liberal left or cultural Marxism.

There have been cases of efforts to recruit young people into identitarian or anti-immigrant movements on college campuses. Prior to the pandemic, college campuses were the largest site for the old-school tactic of paper flyering. Interestingly, during the pandemic, when colleges weren’t that populated, paper flyering of white supremacist content doubled, but it moved into public spaces off campus. In 2020, the ADL recorded more than five thousand incidents of racist, antisemitic, and anti-LGBTQ flyers, stickers, and other propaganda. It remains to be seen, but I’m assuming that paper flyering will come back to college campuses as students return. College communities should be prepared for it.

What might make college students vulnerable to radicalization?

Traditional-age college students, and youth in general, are usually more vulnerable than everybody else because they’re in an identity-seeking phase. They’re trying on different political identities and figuring things out.

Transitioning to college can be a difficult time. People who feel isolated and lack a sense of belonging, control, purpose, and meaning in their lives can be more vulnerable to radicalization by groups that say they have their backs and that claim they are offering them a path to engaging with the world with meaning.

How should educators and administrators respond to hatred and support targeted students?

Campuses have been the sites of hate incidents that may or may not have been perpetrated by people on campus. These incidents create an incredibly unsafe campus climate and a feeling of trauma for members of targeted groups.

Colleges and universities have been doing a better job of enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts on campuses over the past decade, but those efforts can be so easily undermined by one hate incident, by a series of paper flyers, or by inadequately attending to the need to build resilience against rising extremism. The first step is recognizing the problem and changing campus climate and culture in a more inclusive way. The second step is responding. The worst kinds of responses are ones that narrowly tie themselves to policies without talking about values. For example, when extremist flyers were found at one college, the institution issued a statement that said these flyers were removed because they violated the campus policy about adhesives on buildings. There was some outcry from students, and the college eventually issued another statement that said, “Oh, and it goes against our values.” But the damage was done.

Institutions are often so worried about protecting free speech that they forget you can condemn hate speech and protect free speech at the same time. Colleges can acknowledge the law and also make sure responses to hate incidents are survivor centered in ways that show solidarity and reinforce the values of inclusion and diversity that the community stands for.

It’s a sobering thing to say, but as we return to campus, it’s important for folks to understand the threat of extremism—although I keep hoping that the things that I study will become irrelevant. The goal is to study myself out of existence. If there was no more need for PERIL or for my work, that would be ideal. 

Select any filter and click on Apply to see results