Feb 9, 2021 - Technology

How to deprogram America's extremists

Illustration of a brain in an ice bucket

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

It will take an all-out national effort to dismantle the radicalization pipeline that has planted conspiracy theories in the heads of millions of Americans and inspired last month's attack on the Capitol, experts tell Axios.

Two key measures that could make a difference:

  • Keeping extremists out of the institutions where they could do the greatest damage — like the military, police departments and legislatures.
  • Providing help for those who have embraced dangerous ideologies.

Online platforms, meanwhile, must be unwavering in their commitment to root out conspiracy theories and lies that undermine faith in democracy, according to experts interviewed by Axios.

  • Radicalization and counterterrorism experts broadly applaud tech companies' efforts, now underway, to remove this material and the accounts that spread it off their platforms, despite heavy blowback from conservatives.
  • Twitter's decision to ban Donald Trump is seen on its own as a major asset in the fight to slow or reverse radicalization.

The U.S. needs a "Marshall Plan against domestic extremism," Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies, told Axios.

  • "The spread of extremist conspiracy theories in the United States is the second most dangerous pandemic the country faces right now," he said. "The damage that's been to the U.S. in terms of community and social cohesion will be immense and will be lasting."
  • The radicalization is happening in a multitude of online spaces and right-wing media channels, pulling people into an alternate reality that posits, among a growing swarm of other false ideas, that the 2020 election was stolen.
  • When it comes to coordinated deradicalization efforts, the U.S. is behind most European countries by 25–30 years, Koehler said.

The latest: Twitter's ongoing purge of far-right conspiracy theorists who have spread the lie that Trump won the 2020 election continued apace over the weekend, as the company suspended the account of Gateway Pundit founder Jim Hoft.

A key part of breaking extremists' rising mainstream influence will be making it unacceptable for white nationalists, anti-government extremists and conspiracy theorists to serve in the military, in police forces or as lawmakers.

  • Experts worry that the GOP's tacit and sometimes explicit approval of extremists will hamper efforts to keep police forces and legislatures free of conspiracy theorists.
  • "At DOD, it will go well and they will quash it," said former FBI counterterrorism analyst Clint Watts. "It's a lot of sheriffs' departments that make me nervous, because they're elected. Politics means you go with party."

Yes, but: A purely punitive, security-minded approach alone is likely to prove ineffective and invasive at best, experts say. At worst, it will only fuel extremists' sense of persecution and push them closer to violence.

Instead, experts agree serious resources need to be mustered toward providing an offramp for people who have been drawn into extremist ideologies.

  • New federal programs would likely be doomed to fail, experts say, because distrust and hatred of the government is already a core tenet of far-right extremism.
  • Instead, private and public-private programs are more likely to be effective, particularly if they're able to get endorsement and funding from federal and state governments.
  • Those could include anti-extremism counseling programs and support groups; education programs that work with schools to identify risks and signs of incipient radicalization; and rehabilitation organizations that work with the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated.

One idea, courtesy of Christian Picciolini, a former neo-Nazi leader who founded the Free Radicals Project, which works to help people leave violent extremist groups: a "single entry point" akin to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline "that people recognize, that people trust, that people understand."

  • Something like a national hotline or online portal could steer people to local resources to help them or loved ones escape the radicalization pipeline, he said.

The bottom line: "Any sort of solution is going to have to be holistic and is going to have to have empathy at its core," said Jared Holt, a visiting research fellow with the Atlantic Council.

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