New research sheds light on the indoctrination process of radical extremist groups.
- A new study features interviews with 24 former extremists on the radicalization process.
- Financial instability, online propaganda, and reorienting events that caused them to "snap" are leading causes of indoctrination.
- The research team offers potential solutions, including exposure to diverse ideas during childhood and a tamping down of polarization and media sensationalism.
Researchers are continuing to unpack the reasons why extremists stormed the Capitol on January 6. Political scientist Robert Pape hypothesized that answers could be found in increasingly desperate economic conditions—the distance between the wealthiest and everyone else has never been so stark in America. As he dug into the data, however, a different story emerged.
"If you look back in history, there has always been a series of far-right extremist movements responding to new waves of immigration to the United States or to movements for civil rights by minority groups. [The Capitol insurrectionists] are mainly middle-class to upper-middle-class whites who are worried that, as social changes occur around them, they will see a decline in their status in the future."
Pape isn't the only researcher contemplating the path from aggrievement to insurrection. A new study, published by the RAND Corporation, takes a detailed look at the indoctrination process through interviews with white nationalists, Islamic extremists, and their family members and friends.
The researchers set out with a basic set of questions to better understand the radicalization process in the hopes of developing prevention and intervention measures.
- What factors lead individuals to join violent extremist organizations?
- How and why do extremists become deradicalized, leave their organizations, change their minds, and in some cases join the fight against radicalism?
- What can we do better to assist those who have been radicalized and prevent extremist organizations from recruiting new members?
After poring over existing research, the team conducted 36 interviews, consisting of 24 former extremists, 10 family members, and two friends. Most of the subjects were active in this millennium, with six only active before the year 2000.
The researchers discovered three major background characteristics that led people to become extremists. (1) Financial instability: In 22 cases, financial instability was key, with seven former extremists claiming this as the main reason they joined an extremist organization. (2) Mental health issues: In 17 cases, overwhelming anger predominated, but PTSD, trauma, substance abuse, and depression around physical issues also played a role. (3) Social factors: Marginalization, victimization, and stigmatization were mentioned in 16 cases.
Often, these background characteristics weren't enough. In over half the cases, there was a "reorienting event," that is, a moment that "broke" them, such as being rejected from the military, experiencing long-term unemployment, or enduring a friend's suicide. Propaganda was involved in 22 cases, predominantly through social media but also through books and music. Another factor was direct and indirect recruitment, with indirect recruitment being much more common. In other words, the individuals sought to join extremists groups. Social bonds played a role in 14 cases, including "graduating" from one organization to a more extreme group.
A Proud Boy member is armed with a gun labeled "Zombie Killer" as members and supporters of Patriot Prayer gather in Esther Short Park for a memorial for member Aaron J. Danielson in Vancouver, Washington on September 5, 2020. Credit: Allison Dinner / AFP via Getty Images
How to help extremists
Why do extremists quit? The most common reasons for leaving are feelings of disillusionment and burnout. Members grew disappointed by the failed promises of leaders or noticed hypocrisy among the ranks. Over half of the individuals were involved in failed deradicalization efforts, however, showing the resilience of these organizations even when family members and friends try to intervene.
The good news is that there is light at the end of the tunnel. An extremist isn't a lost cause. The team lists important steps for helping extremists leave hate groups as well as for preventing people from being seduced in the first place. The researchers' recommendations include:
- Exposure to diverse ideas, especially during childhood
- The development of critical thinking skills
- Participation in prosocial activities that promote positive behaviors and inclusiveness
- Exposure to different racial and cultural groups
- Addressing marginalization more broadly
- A tamping down of polarization and media sensationalism
- Better access to mental health treatment
- Targeted outreach and support for military veterans
The researchers note that this is a small study sample, so further work is necessary. Yet, these interviews offer a starting point for understanding the true scope of the problem. The reasons people become extremists are complex and multivariate. Preventing extremism therefore requires a holistic approach that addresses topics such as childhood education, poverty, mental health, ethnic and racial animosity, and the prevalence of propaganda.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
Most people believe you can win an argument with facts - but when "facts" are so often subject to doubt, are personal experiences trusted more?
- A new study has found that people are more likely to get respect from others in moral and political conversations when sharing personal experiences instead of facts.
- The research group conducted 15 separate experiments to test this theory in order to learn more about tolerance in specifically political arguments.
- The effectiveness of facts in these conversations (even when proven true) is unclear because facts themselves are now subject to doubt, especially surrounding controversial and polarizing topics such as gun control and political beliefs.
Researchers at the University of Koblenz-Landau, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and the Wharton School of Business have found that people are more likely to get respect from others in moral and political conversations when sharing personal experiences instead of facts. The research group conducted 15 separate experiments to test this theory and to learn more about tolerance in specifically political arguments.
Use personal experience, not facts, to gain respect in a disagreement
Do personal anecdotes mean more than facts in a world where facts can't be trusted?
Image by ngupakarti on Adobe Stock
According to the study, both liberals and conservatives believe that using facts in a political discussion will help foster mutual respect and understanding — however, all fifteen of these experiments (across multiple methodologies and issues) show that isn't quite true.
These studies were conducted using topics that have proved quite polarizing in the past, such as:
- Conversations about guns
- Discussion over comments from YouTube videos regarding abortion opinions
- An archive of 137 interview transcripts from Fox News and CNN
"What would make you respect their opinion on the subject"?
In the first study (n = 251), participants were asked to "imagine someone disagrees with you on moral issues" (abortion, for example). They were then asked, "What would make you respect their opinion on the subject"?
Responses were then categorized into themes with a majority of respondents (55.78 percent) stating that basing one's stance on facts and statistics would increase respect, followed by basing one's stance on personal experiences (21.12 percent), followed by an understanding of mutual respect (14.34 percent).
"When discussing political beliefs, who is more rational?"
Next, a sample of participants (n = 859) was asked to imagine interacting with two political opponents, one who based their beliefs on facts, and one who based their beliefs on personal experiences. Participants rated their imaginary fact-based opponent as more rational than the opponent who based their stance on personal experiences. They also voted that they respected them more and wanted to interact with them more.
A separate study from this experiment (study number four, n = 177) had participants weighing in on topics such as taxes, coal, and gun policies. They then were asked to read about individuals who disagreed with them on these subjects either due to personal experiences or factual knowledge. Participants in this study rated how rational their opponent seemed, and those who based their arguments on personal experience were perceived as more rational than those basing their opinions on factual knowledge.
How does this translate to real-world conversations?
This section of the experiment had 153 participants engaging in conversations on the street (with people they assumed were passersby but were actually members of the research team) about the topic of gun control. Analyses of these conversations revealed that strangers who based their stance on personal experiences were treated as more rational (and were more respected/interacted with more) by participants than those who based their stance on facts.
Confirming the theory that even when facts are true, personal experiences garner more respect and willingness to engage in conversation.
This experiment (n = 194) sought to reaffirm the theory that personal experiences garnered more respect while ruling out possible alternative explanations. The researchers contrasted concrete facts about gun control (taken from JustFacts.com) with personal experiences. For example, someone reading an annual report that mentions 73 percent of murders in the United States are committed with firearms (factual knowledge) versus "someone's young daughter was hit by a stray bullet" (experience-driven argument).
This study found that these facts were rated as higher in specificity and concreteness than the personal experience, however, personal experiences gained more respect and willingness to discuss the topic.
Facts, even when proven true, are often less respected than personal experiences.
When imagining these different kinds of arguments, everyday Americans believe that supporting their belief with facts will lead to respect. However, the effectiveness of facts (even when proven correct) is unclear. The problem is, in the past decades, American has seen a decentralization of news and information that has allowed people to gather their "own facts." Facts themselves are now subject to doubt, especially surrounding controversial and polarizing topics.
Gun violence is a public health crisis that is notoriously difficult to study because of politics. Finally, a new research initiative has the green light to collect life-saving data.
- New York's Northwell Health system recently received a $1.4 million grant for a new study on gun violence prevention.
- The study tasks doctors with asking all patients about their access and exposure to guns, and recommending interventions and safety tips as needed.
- The goal is to destigmatize doctor-patient conversations about guns, and reframe gun violence as a public health issue.
Doctors often ask patients about the health risks in their daily lives, such as sugar intake or tobacco use. After all, doctors can use that information to design better treatments. And on a larger scale, health professionals can use anonymized medical data on substances like sugar and tobacco to learn more about diseases like diabetes and lung cancer.
So, what if doctors began asking similar questions about guns, which are involved in more than 100 deaths in the U.S. every day? Could patients and researchers benefit in similar ways?
A new study from Northwell Health, the largest health system in New York State, aims to find out. In the "We Ask Everyone. Firearm Safety is a Health Issue" study, which began in September, doctors will ask every patient who visits an emergency department at three Northwell Health facilities about their access and exposure to firearms, with questions like:
- Do you have a gun at home?
- Do you have access to guns outside your home?
- Have you had a gun pulled on you over the last six months?
The answers will become part of a large, anonymized data pool that will help researchers better understand the underlying factors behind gun violence. Northwell Health will also offer interventions to at-risk patients.
"This will be the first research study to universally screen all patients who come into the emergency department for firearm access, and gun violence risk, and then intervene as needed, with gun safety counseling, gun locks, community resources, and medical referrals," said Dr. Chethan Sathya, director of Northwell's Center for Gun Violence Prevention. "If you look at any other public health issue, it starts with this universal type of approach."
In the study, all conversations about firearm access and exposure will be confidential. The goal is to encourage firearm safety, educate at-risk patients on violence-prevention resources, and normalize doctor-patient conversations about guns—not stigmatize gun ownership or infringe upon individual rights.
The collected data will help health professionals develop better models for predicting who's most at risk of gun violence. Northwell Health isn't quite sure what that data will reveal. That's why universal screening is the first step.
"The bottom line is, we don't know the answers yet," said Dr. Sathya. "So, how can we target screening if we don't even know the basic elements of a public health approach?"
When we reframe [gun violence] as a public health issue, then we're able to use the same strategies that we've used to decrease car-crash deaths, decrease infections and deaths from HIV, and reduce injuries and deaths from a host of other problems.
Reframing conversations on gun violence
One major goal of the study is to reframe how health professionals and patients discuss gun violence—an issue that's often couched only in political terms.
"Our big push is to consider gun violence as a public health issue," said Dr. Sathya. "For decades, we've tried to get doctors to try to ask [patients about firearms access and exposure]. They won't, because it's not considered part of the usual care."
Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician and Chief Research Officer for the American Foundation for Firearm Injury Reduction in Medicine, said talking about guns from a different angle can lead to meaningful reductions in injuries and deaths.
"When we reframe [gun violence] as a public health issue, then we're able to use the same strategies that we've used to decrease car-crash deaths, decrease infections and deaths from HIV, and reduce injuries and deaths from a host of other problems," said Dr. Ranney. "We don't waste our time arguing while death rates go up. Instead, we actually do something that we as individual Americans can take on."
Moving forward on gun violence research
Mortality rate vs funding for 30 leading causes of death in the United States.
Credit: Stark et. al. / JAMA
Over the past couple of decades, researchers have conducted many studies on gun violence. But hardly any received federal funding. To put it in perspective, a 2017 study found that the federal government spends about $63 on firearms research for every life lost to gun violence in the U.S. Compare that to $182,668 in funding for every life lost to HIV.
The funding freeze stems largely from the Dickey Amendment, which Congress passed in 1996 to ensure that "none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control."
"It comes from a perception that research was done with an agenda of legislative change, which it isn't," said Dr. Ranney. "Research is done in order to advance health, and it ideally happens from a perspective that is independent of personal belief."
Focused on public health instead of politics, the new study aims to broaden the scope of firearms research.
"The studies that have been conducted with respect to firearms have been so limited," said Dr. Sathya, noting as an example how doctors might ask about firearms only if a patient is suicidal. "Because there has been no funding, we're starting from scratch in many ways."
Hospitals and gun violence prevention
Dr. Sathya and Mr. Dowling are spearheading Northwell's gun-violence prevention efforts, including the "We Ask Everyone. Firearm Safety is a Health Issue" research study.
Credit: Northwell Health
One reason health professionals are uniquely suited to play a lead role in preventing gun violence is that they're often the first point of institutional contact for at-risk people. By normalizing doctor-patient conversations about guns, health professionals would be able to intervene early.
For example, they could connect at-risk patients with violence-prevention resources like the New York City Mayor's Office to Prevent Gun Violence, which curbs gun violence through strategies like "violence interrupters," liaisons between communities and public officials, and funding for community-based activities to make neighborhoods safer.
Northwell Health president and CEO Michael Dowling also noted that about 40,000 people die from guns every year in the U.S., while thousands more are injured. For the health professionals that treat the victims, these statistics aren't abstract.
"Gun violence is a public health problem, period," said Dowling. "As guardians of public health, it is our responsibility to address this scourge on our communities, and the clinicians who are knee-deep in the carnage."
In 2021, Northwell Health plans to begin sharing and discussing the results of its multi-year study with other health systems as part of its Gun Violence Prevention Learning Collaborative.
"We hope that it serves as a blueprint for other hospitals and health systems as to how to institute this universal approach so that doctors can start asking the question more and more, and so it isn't an awkward topic to talk about," said Dr. Sathya.
By projecting lifetime risk, an alarming new medical study centers the human lives that will be lost due to gun violence and drug addiction in the United States.
- A new study found that the risk of a person dying from a gunshot is about one percent, while the risk of death by drug overdose is at 1.5 percent.
- If this death trend continues on this trajectory, it means that approximately one out of every 100 children today will die from a firearm while one out of 70 will die by drug overdose.
- Presenting these statistics in terms of "lifetime risk" makes the numbers personal by centering the human lives that will be lost and demands ethical action to protect those lives.
A disturbing new study has projected a lifetime risk of death from firearms and drug overdoses in the United States.
The study, published in The American Journal of Medicine, found that the risk of a person dying from a gunshot is about one percent, while the risk of death by drug overdose is at 1.5 percent. If this death trend continues on this trajectory, it means that approximately one out of every 100 children today will die from a firearm while a sobering one out of 70 will die by drug overdose.
Place and identity
Of course, location, racial ethnicity, and gender are relevant when it comes to calculating the risk of dying by either gunshot or drug overdose. The study found that the lifetime risk of dying by firearm is the highest among Black boys, with one out of 40 calculated to die by gunshot. That's a 33-fold higher risk when compared to Asian American females. This risk of dying by gun violence is highest for individuals living in Alabama and New Mexico.
The lifetime risk of drug overdose is the highest among Black and white boys and in the state of West Virginia, where one out of 30 children will die this way.
Beyond absolute numbersPhoto by Piron Guillaume on Unsplash
The presentation of the data in this study puts the human being in the center of the fatalities. Media and policy makers typically discuss these social issues in terms of numbers of death; e.g. 40,000 firearm deaths in 2017, or 21.6 overdose deaths a year for a population of 100,000 in 2017. But those absolute numbers omit a vital, personal part of the story and can undermine the ethical demands of the issue by de-centering the human lives that will be lost.
To do this study, Ashwini Sehgal, MD — a professor of medicine at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and a physician at MetroHealth Medical Center — used data from official death certificates to project the likelihood that an American will die from either gun violence or a drug overdose in his or her lifetime.
"While absolute numbers of deaths and annual death rates describe mortality over a short period of time, lifetime risk tells us more about long-term consequences," he said in a Elsevier news release. Sehgal explained how thinking about the risk in a person's entire lifetime shifts perspective, noting that the study findings haunted him when he was touring a new elementary school in his Midwestern community. "I had a hard time concentrating on the gleaming whiteboards, the new computers, or the cheerfully decorated walls. I realized that one child on every floor of the school would likely die from firearms and another one from a drug overdose in the years ahead. If I were across the border in West Virginia, then one child per classroom will have their life ended by an overdose."
In the study, Sehgal wrote that presenting information on lifetime risk of death may be a more useful way to communicate the impact of gun violence and overdose deaths to the public and policy makers. He advised that lifetime risk be included in news stories and government reports, also recommending that it be compared with the lifetime risk of dying by other causes — such as terminal illness — and figures from other nations.
"For example, the lifetime risk of dying from an overdose is similar to the lifetime risk of dying from colon cancer," reported Elsevier's news release. "Moreover, firearm deaths in our country are six times more common than in Canada and 50 times more common than in the United Kingdom, two countries that are culturally similar to the US."
It may also be beneficial to highlight changes in chance of lifetime death by these causes over time. American drug overdoses, for example, have quadrupled over the last 20 years.
The lifetime risk calculations made by Sehgal are based on the assumption that future death rates will parallel the current ones measured. But if the public and policy makers take action, this can change.
"The big differences in firearm and overdose deaths by race, gender, state, and country, and the sizable changes over time indicate that high levels of firearm and overdose deaths are not inevitable," said Sehgal. "Let's take sensible steps now to help our children avoid the preventable tragedies of firearm and overdose deaths."
The Response Act calls on schools to increase monitoring of students' online activity.
- The Response Act was introduced by Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, and was co-sponsored by five other Republican senators.
- Among other measures, the bill aims to "incentivize schools to enforce internet safety policies that detect online activities of minors."
- However, there is no evidence showing that student surveillance technologies actually prevent violence.
In an effort to prevent mass shootings, Senate Republicans have proposed a bill that calls for school districts to use surveillance technology to monitor students' online activity.
The bill, entitled the Response Act, would incentivize schools to purchase technology designed to flag online activity from minors "who are at imminent risk of committing self-harm or extreme violence against others." The legislation was introduced by Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican whom the National Rifle Association (NRA) has given a perfect score for supporting Second Amendment rights. Among the 10 measures on the bill, one mentions firearms.
That measure would create federally funded, nationwide task forces to investigate and prosecute unlicensed firearms dealers. Cornyn's bill also calls for boosting federal funding for states' mental health programs, increasing law enforcements' access to active shooter training, and speeding up the death penalty for mass murderers.
But some privacy and student advocates are concerned about the idea of incentivizing public schools to implement surveillance technology. For millions of students, this kind of mass surveillance is already the norm.
The $3 billion school security industry
Many U.S. school districts have turned to the school security industry for help in the wake of school shootings. In addition to more traditional security techniques like metal detectors and X-ray machines, the school security industry offers services that keep a close eye on what students are doing online.
Companies like Gaggle, for example, monitor students' activity on school computers by scanning through documents, emails and even calendar entries. Meanwhile, companies like Social Sentinel look beyond school networks to scan students' social media profiles for potential threats, claiming to offer schools "total awareness."
It's unclear exactly how many schools use these services, but it's likely that millions of students in the U.S. are being surveilled when they walk into school. The problem that some privacy and student advocates have is that there's no hard evidence showing that these new approaches really work.
False flags and a lack of evidence
There's no evidence that any measure to prevent school shootings is effective, according to a 2019 study that examined various prevention techniques and school shootings from 2000 to 2018. But school security technologies do produce false flags, whether over "To Kill a Mockingbird" essays or tweets about the movie "Shooter".
"There's no proven information showing that social media monitoring is useful," Amelia Vance, a student privacy advocate with the Future of Privacy Forum, told NPR. "We have a lot of data showing it overwhelms with false flags."
Vance also noted that surveillance systems – which can divert school districts' time and money away from other areas of investment – can change the learning environment.
"You are forcing schools into a position where they would have to surveil by default," Vance told The Guardian. "There's a privacy debate to be had about whether surveillance is the right tactic to take in schools, whether it inhibits students' trust in their schools and their ability to learn."
No easy solution
In the wake of the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., members of the public at a school board meeting in Old Bridge, N.J., asked school officials, "What are you going to do to prevent the next school shooting?"
"Things changed after Parkland," David Cittadino, superintendent of Oak Bridge schools, told NPR.
Facing this kind of pressure from scared and frustrated parents, it's no wonder that many schools are willing to try out unproven methods in an attempt to bolster security for students.
"It's similar to post-9/11," Rachel Levinson-Waldman, a lawyer with the liberty and national security program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University law school, told Education Week. "There is an understandable instinct to do whatever you can to stop the next horrible thing from happening. But the solution doesn't solve the problem, and it creates new issues of its own."