Meet the College Course Fighting Online Terror With Empathy

Dr. Stern's Students

Huddled around a conference table, a team meets to develop a way to stop terror groups around the world from gaining recruits. But they’re not intelligence officials in Washington, D.C. They’re a group of college students in Dr. Jessica Stern’s course at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies.

Stern is an expert on terrorism who served on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council Staff and is experienced in researching ways to counter the propaganda pushed by terror groups. Now, one of her classes is joining her in that effort.

The students in Stern’s class will develop an outreach campaign to dissuade would-be recruits from joining terror groups such as al Qaeda, the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS), neo-nazis and violent racial supremacist groups.

The course comes amidst national controversy about how best to guard against terror. Discourse over President Trump’s sweeping immigration restrictions, military campaigns against terror groups around the world, and surveillance tactics at home have been at the forefront of the national discussion.

But what if you could stop recruits before they ever join a terrorist organization?

Enter Dr. Stern and her students.

According to Stern, both the students and recruits sought by terror groups have common ground in their generation.

Stern described the demographics targeted by terror groups: “I mean you see, sometimes, old people, but that’s very rare.  Extremist groups, often they prey on young people who are seeking an identity.  And that’s just a process of – it’s a stage of life that every single person goes through.  Old people sometimes forget what that felt like, I think.”

She says their common age group is a “tremendous advantage.”

“I realized about 15 years ago that one of the reasons that we’re failing in our efforts to develop a counter-narrative, the government, is that it’s a bunch of middle-aged people in the State Department trying to come up with a way to talk to these kids,” Stern said.

“It’s kids who should be doing it.”

According to Stern, terror groups are not just seeking younger recruits because they’re more impressionable: the extremist groups are looking for combat-ready members.

“Jihadi groups are often recruiting for what they consider to be a war.  You don’t want somebody my age, you want someone who’s of fighting age.”

On how she became inspired to teach this unorthodox course, Stern said she’s had the idea for quite a while.

“I had actually argued, in print, that it should be young people doing this, years ago.  But I didn’t ever dream that I would be involved in organizing them,” Stern said.

Then she connected with EdVenture Partners‘ CEO Tony Sgro at the Obama administration’s Countering Violent Extremism Summit. Sgro’s company was putting together a contest in which students around the world would create anti-terror campaigns.

“[The students] can take advantage of a skill set that they have, which is to talk to people their age,” Stern continued.

Efforts in the past by social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have been aimed at combating terror groups’ propaganda by taking it off the web. Stern’s class is going further with the idea of creating “counter-narratives” to replace terrorists’ messages.  The “counter-narratives” would push back against propaganda, in the hopes that the students’ messages are more powerful than the terror groups.’

The students’ project will be entered in the Peer to Peer (P2P): Challenging Extremism competition.  Judges will evaluate anti-terror campaigns put together by colleges around the world.

In the past, submissions to the P2P: Challenging Extremism competition have included social media campaigns that reach out directly to terror groups’ recruitment base.  Others inform parents how to discern whether their kids are being radicalized.  Some projects created so-called “honey pot” websites: URL’s disguised as extremist groups’ sites, but that re-direct to sites that implore members to leave extremist groups.

Last year, Utrecht University’s “#DaretoBeGrey” campaign sought to counter the “black and white” narrative pushed by extremist groups; Rochester Tech’s project encouraged users to “Ex-Out” of sites with extremist content. Top-finishing teams get a grant to launch their project.

The contest is jointly sponsored by Facebook and the Department of Homeland Security and organized by Millennial-focused marketing group EdVenture Partners.  The competition started in 2015 and is held each fall and spring academic semester, according to EdVenture Partners spokesperson Stacey Boyett.

Boyett said that EdVenture Partners began the P2P competition after CEO Tony Sgro got a call from someone with the Obama administration’s National Security Council in October 2014.

“He [the National Security Council official] basically asked, ‘OK, you’ve run these successful programs on university campuses for the private sector, some for various government agencies.  Do you think you could repurpose your model so students can push back on ISIL and extremists?’” Boyett recalled.

Now students around the world are vying for the gold standard of counter-terror efforts: stopping would-be recruits before they ever join a terror group.

Dr. Stern’s class is still in the preliminary stages of piecing together its project. The Quad will follow them throughout the semester as they develop a way to fight terror with empathy.

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