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Research Symposiums

"Digital Media, Extremism & Political Violence in America"
2024 Winter Research Symposium

Friday March 8th, 10:30am to 5pm, Frances Searle Building, Evanston Campus

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Research Session 1: Social and Behavioral Dimensions of Digital Media and Political Violence

10:30am to 12pm, Frances Searle 3417

“How Violent Political Messages Erode Relationships & Increase Social Distance Online” by Nathan Kalmoe, (Ph.D., Political Science), Executive Director, Center for Communication and Civic Renewal at the University of Wisconsin, Madison

Abstract: Scholars have prescribed the virtues of cross-cutting communication and emphasized civic harms from its absence. However, sustaining relationships and politically engaging with others may not always be viable or valuable, given that “communication” can be hostile, violent, and civically destructive, as is often observed on social media. In two nationally diverse survey experiments, we tested whether violent rhetoric and other forms of hostility erode relationships and increase social distance using real-world rhetoric from Trump, Biden, and ordinary people. We find that violent messages (and not just intolerance of disagreement or even hostility) uniquely contribute to unfriending — and insulting – behaviors with counter-partisan neighbors and strangers. We conclude that violent messages are especially damaging to civic and interpersonal relationships, and that the causes and consequences of eroding cross-party relationships are more empirically and normatively nuanced than past work suggests.  

“Examining Online Posting Behaviors of Violent and Non-Violent Right-Wing Extremists” by Ryan Scrivens, (Ph.D., Criminology), Assistant Professor of Criminology, Michigan State University

Abstract: Despite the ongoing need for researchers, practitioners, and policymakers to identify and assess the online activities of violent extremists prior to their engagement in violence offline, little is empirically known about their online posting behaviors generally or differences in their online behaviors compared to non-violent extremists who share similar ideological beliefs particularly. Dr. Scrivens will discuss his ongoing research on the online behaviors of violent and non-violent right-wing extremists and highlight how his work can inform future risk factor frameworks used by law enforcement and intelligence agencies to identify credible threats online. He will also discuss a novel and unique strategy he has used to collect online content from violent and non-violent extremists for large-scale data analyses. He will conclude with a discussion of future trends in examining the online posting behaviors of violent extremists

Research Session 2: Mapping the Online Media Ecology of Extremism and Political Violence

1:30pm to 3pm, Frances Searle 3417

“Computational Approaches for Explicating Political Violence in Online Images” by Ayse Lokmanoglu, (Ph.D., Communication), Assistant Professor, Clemson University

Abstract: Despite the plethora of research on text-based social media analysis on political violence, user-generated image-based social media in large scale have been overlooked. Yet images are more efficient for conveying messages as they encourage higher levels of attention and recall and do not require language fluency. Using a mixed methodology of human coding and image embeddings and combining them with social media metrices this approach can be extended to other forms of visual propaganda and used to categorize political violence

“The Online Extremist Ecosystem and Its Persistent Threat to American Democracy” by Heather Williams (M.S., Strategic Intelligence), Senior Policy Researcher and Professor of Policy Analysis, Pardee RAND Graduate School

Abstract: Extremists—be they motivated by racial, ethnic, or religious prejudice or anti-government sentiment— can be found in all corners of the web. Online spaces provide a low-cost mechanism for these individuals and groups to extend their reach and finance their activities, network with like-minded individuals, recruit new members, share knowledge among themselves, and coordinate operational activities. Online spaces have fueled the spread of conspiracy theories and disinformation and provided extremists with new mechanisms to reach potentially receptive audiences. Moreover, online spaces have become incubators for a vicious, reinforcing cycle of polarization and propaganda. The events of January 6, 2020, demonstrated how dangerous this combination can be—and very little has changed since then to prevent those with an extreme agenda from reaching a broad audience, organizing conspiracies, or coordinating violent action oriented toward undercutting American democracy

Session 3 Panel Discussion: Digital Media, Extremism & Political Violence and Implications for the 2024 U.S. Presidential Election

3:30 PM – 5 PM, FS 1-441

Moderator: Erik Nisbet, (Ph.D., Communication) Owen L. Coon Professor of Policy Analysis and Communication and Director of the Center for Communication & Policy Policy
Description: The 2020 U.S. Presidential election resulted in the first modern-day insurrection in the United States, in part mobilized by domestic violent extremist groups and online platforms.  Over the last decade, the United States has also experienced a substantial increase in the number of targeted attacks and violent incidents by domestic perpetrators motivated by politics.  Political threats and partisan-motivated violence has been increasingly mainstreamed in our political discourse and body politic.  At the same time, online platforms are reducing or eliminating their content moderation of problematic and harmful speech. Our panel of experts will discuss these trends and their implications for the 2024 U.S. presidential election. Panel Participants: Nathan Kalmoe, Ryan Scrivens, Ayse Lokmanoglu, and Heather Williams

Featured Speakers

Nathan Kalmoe (Ph.D. University of Michigan) is executive director of the Center for Communication and Civic Renewal at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He has written three scholarly books, two dozen academic articles, and many public essays on violent politics and American democratization past, present, and future, with a particular focus on messaging effects, partisanship, violence, and identity to inform national discussions and promote positive change.

Ryan Scrivens is an Assistant Professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University. He is also an Associate Director at the International CyberCrime Research Centre at Simon Fraser University in Canada and a Research Fellow at the VOX-Pol Network of Excellence in Ireland. He conducts problem-oriented interdisciplinary research with a focus on terrorists’ and extremists’ use of the Internet, right-wing terrorism and extremism, and hate crime. He is the recipient of the 2022 Early Career Impact Award from the American Society of Criminology’s Division on Terrorism and Bias Crimes.

Ayse D. Lokmanoglu is an assistant professor at Clemson University and core faculty in Media Forensics Hub. She is a leadership member of Vox Pol Network and an affiliate of the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life (CITAP). Her work takes a mixed-method approach that integrates computational methodologies, quantitative tools, and digital humanities to examine the mainstreaming of supremacist ideologies on the internet by state and non-state actors focused on race, gender, and religion.

Heather Williams is a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and acting director of the International Security and Defense Policy Program. She focuses on national security, terrorism and extremist violence, and intelligence policy and methodology. Williams served for 13 years in the Intelligence Community, including as the Acting National Intelligence Officer for Iran on the National Intelligence Council. She did three overseas tours supporting Special Operations Forces counterterrorism operations. Williams holds an M.S. in strategic intelligence from the National Intelligence University and a B.S. in U.S. foreign policy and national security from Boston University.