It all started with a casual question. “What would it take,” a colleague asked American University sociologist Cynthia Miller-Idriss over coffee one morning, “to develop an empirically-tested, nationally-scalable intervention to prevent youth from radicalizing to white supremacist extremism?”
After years of studying education-based responses to rising hate and extremist violence in contemporary Germany– and watching domestic violent extremism grow in the U.S.– the question couldn’t have come at a better time. And Cynthia couldn’t stop thinking about it. Within months, she had joined forces with media and communications specialist Dr. Brian Hughes to launch the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL)– with an aim of reshaping the field of violent extremism prevention toward public health approach to interventions.
Security and law enforcement approaches had long dominated the field, especially in the wake of 9/11. But those efforts– which emphasized surveillance, monitoring, infiltration, and incarceration– were a poor match for the messy and evolving landscape of far right youth radicalization, which takes place in a wide variety of online and offline youth spaces. Modern far right youth spaces use humor, irony, satire, and attractive aesthetics packaged in persuasive short-form videos, memes, and imageboard posts. There was little evidence in the field of how to effectively treat this kind of violent extremism. Meanwhile, communities across the country were asking for help as they watched neighbors, friends, colleagues, and loved ones begin to espouse conspiracy theories and calls for political violence– and as they felt the effects of record-breaking hate crimes, now at the highest point in thirty years.
Cynthia and Brian built a team in PERIL who work to design and test primary or “upstream” approaches that prevent people from being persuaded by propaganda and conspiracy theories or build early off ramps to radicalization. By investing in prevention early on, the goal is to stem the tide of radicalized individuals who require law enforcement intervention. They also committed to testing everything they do for not only output metrics (how many people were trained or how many downloads of a tool took place), but also impact evaluation through pre- and post-testing or control group comparison. This approach reduces the chance of an intervention backfiring, and provides assurance about the effectiveness of interventions before scaling up nationally.
This work relies on a different kind of expertise, drawing from a team whose personal, professional, and disciplinary backgrounds are underrepresented in the field– which means that diversity and inclusion are not just values we hang on the wall: they are hallmarks of our innovation. Our team is majority women and racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse, and includes psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, mental health specialists, educators, experts in media and digital communication, and a wide variety of subject matter experts in violence, youth, terrorism, and prevention. In our founding “blue sky” meetings, we held intensive, three-day workshops with scholars on race, immigration, and social justice, victims of hate crimes and terrorism, parents of radicalized youth, and former members of hate groups to generate ideas about what might work to prevent radicalization. The ideas those meetings generated helped shape the lab’s first projects.
In our three year proof-of-concept phase, PERIL launched over a dozen pilot studies, all of which provide statistically significant evidence that it is possible to equip communities and individuals with the tools to be more resilient against hate and harmful content. We began a three-year scale up phase in summer 2022, as we expand our capacity and strategic communication to equip entire populations across the U.S. with the resources to prevent extremism, expanding the reach of their work to cultivate a world with less hate and more resilience. In December 2022, PERIL became a social enterprise organization of the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, which invests in social entrepreneurs to build sustainable growth and impact.
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