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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.  

Political Violence against Women and People of Color in Office: Motivations, Prevalence, and Consequences by Alexandra Filindra, (Ph.D., Political Science), Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Illinois -Chicago

Abstract: Political violence, psychological and physical, against elected officials in the United States is on the rise. Research shows that engagement with certain extremist social media communities can radicalize people and lead them to issue violent threats. Often, these threats are delivered through social media as well. We study the phenomenon from the perspective of elected officials asking whether and to what extend the motivations, prevalence, and consequences of political violence is gendered and racialized. We use qualitative and quantitative data to examine whether women and people of color are targets of more incidents of political violence or different types of political violence.

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, 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.

Alexandra Filindra is Associate Professor of Political Science and Psychology at the University of Illinois Chicago. Her work focuses on identity content, the role of ingroup and outgroup attitudes in political judgments, and how the macrosocial and historical context influences identities, attitudes, and behavior. Her book, Race, Rights and Rifles: The Origins of the NRA and Contemporary Gun Culture (The University of Chicago Press, 2023) analyzes the origins of the NRA and the relationship between ideologies of citizenship and support for guns and political violence. Her current project (with Dr. Harbridge Yong, Northwestern University) focuses on threats against elected officials/staff and how they shape political behavior and ambition. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Politics, Political Behavior, Policy Studies Journal, Regional Studies, Harvard Education Review, Migration Studies, International Migration, and other scholarly journals.

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.