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Fighting Extremist Social Media with Social Media

BU class campaign against online recruitment in US-sponsored competition


For many troubled young people, the path to extremist groups like ISIS starts with the click of a mouse—a phenomenon that one BU class is trying to counter with its online campaign, SAVE: Standing against Violent Extremists.

The campaign, created by the New Media and Public Relations class of Stephen Quigley, a College of Communication associate professor of public relations, is one of about 150 similar efforts entered in the Peer to Peer (P2P): Challenging Extremism competition put together by EdVenture Partners and sponsored by the US Departments of State and of Homeland Security and Facebook. On December 16, judges will choose six finalists, three US teams and three international teams, to travel to Washington, D.C., in February and present their campaigns in the competition’s final round. The first-place winners will take home $5,000 in scholarship money.

SAVE was developed by about 20 students with the aim of dissuading potential recruits to violence by employing the same social media tools—Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter—used by recruiting sites, but delivering a very different message. The campaign will feature messages about the harm extremist groups cause, the loss felt by parents of children who become extremists, and resources for those looking for help. The goal is not only to reach those who might be drawn to these extremist ideologies, but also to reach the people who are important to them—friends and family.

“We want to influence the influencers,” says Quigley (SED’87), who received a call in August from P2P asking if he was interested in entering his class this year. The answer was yes, although with some trepidation; he is not an expert on violent extremism. So, he teamed up with global terrorism expert Jessica Stern, a Pardee School of Global Studies professor. Stern says social media has become “a very important battleground,” for extremist efforts, one where the US government does not fight well.

“It is really important for young people to get involved in this fight,” she says. “We’ve seen middle-aged people in the State Department trying to develop counternarratives that appeal to 19-year-old kids who are getting recruited to these groups, and it has not worked. I think it is inspired to have young people get involved. It’s really good for the students and it’s really good for counterterrorism.”

Elle Hvozdovic (COM’17)  stands in front of a projector screen

Elle Hvozdovic (COM’17) points out some minor celebrity endorsements for the class campaign. The class submits the work this month to a global competition that aims to reduce the impact of online recruitment tools by extremist organizations.

Stern, who will carry the project over to her spring 2017 class Topics in International Relations, connected Quigley’s class with Parents for Peace, an NGO for parents whose children may be drawn to extremist ideologies. From there, the class created the idea of SAVE and ran with it, with only months to create a competitive campaign, while other teams had been building their projects for years.

“The beginning of November was when we really started getting into the nitty-gritty,” says Elle Hvozdovic (COM’17). “It was a little bit late, based on other people getting into campaigns, mostly because we had to spend so much time making sure that we understood the topic that we were campaigning for.”

To accomplish that, the class dug into the research on violent extremism and interviewed experts, such as Stern and Michael Pregill, a Pardee School Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies & Civilizations interlocutor. In just weeks, the students fleshed out their idea, came up with their signature hashtags (#oneclickto and #takeastand), conducted research, designed a website, launched a social media campaign, created T-shirts, and even got some minor celebrity endorsements, such as boxer George Forman III, actor Brett Dier, and Marissa Castelli, 2014 Olympic figure skating bronze medalist.

“The more I stood back and let the students take the lead, the better it became,” says Quigley. What people don’t seem to realize, he says, is that many of the people who join these groups are not in some foreign country—they can be classmates, friends, and family.

A lot of extremists’ “target audience is college kids, most of them graduating,” says Hvozdovic. “They are vulnerable, they need guidance, they are struggling to find a job—it is a very stressful time in your life, and they really capitalize on that aspect of it.”

Several students say that they hope to see SAVE continue to grow after the class is over. And it just might—when Quigley and his class submitted their application, SAVE and its posts had 646 likes on Facebook, 577 on Twitter, and 2,000 on Instagram.

Ian Evans can be reached at ianevans@bu.edu.

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Jackie Ricciardi, photographer and photojournalist
Jackie Ricciardi

Jackie Ricciardi can be reached at jricc@bu.edu.

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