Expert Panelist: UN Group of Friends of PVE "Social Media and Recruitment to Violence"

Remarks Presented to: Group of Friends of

Preventing Violent Extremism/United Nations

Presented by: Christy Grace Provines on behalf of The ‘MPOWER Project

February 27, 2018

 

 

Omar Mateen, responsible for the deaths of 49 people at a nightclub in Orlando,

Dylan Roof, convicted in the mass murder of nine at a church in Charleston,

and most recently, Nikolas Cruz, a troubled young man with a history of isolation and propensity for violence who killed 17 in yet another school shooting -
 

You all know these names as representative of a growing trend of young men in Western countries who are recruited and display their allegiance for violent ideologies almost exclusively online.

These young men are separated by motivation, family ties and often miles of ocean, yet they chose parallel paths to notoriety through acts of violence against innocent civilians.

One of the most disturbing facets of these incidents is that once the death toll is finalized and the investigation begins, it becomes clear that the internet and in particular, social media, played a key role in their descent to violence in nearly every instance. With red flags often prominently visible on various social media platforms and through online conversations.

Further evident is that behind these acts lie a series of nuanced psychologies affecting each of their paths to destruction and laying the groundwork for the push/pull factors that influence them, ultimately, making violence a choice option.

Good afternoon distinguished guests and fellow panelists - I’m Christy Provines, Founder of The ‘MPOWER Project - and it’s an honor to be here speaking with you today.  

The ‘MPOWER Project is an early stage NGO non-profit focusing on out-branding destructive ideology. We, at The 'MPOWER Project, Take a human-centric approach to prevent violent extremism.  We have created a framework that merges countering violent extremism, strategic messaging, brand marketing and digital media to out-brand destructive ideology, which can lead to violence and threaten human security and peaceful, inclusive society.  

Traditionally, government and law enforcement have concentrated efforts to circumvent acts of violent extremism with hard security tactics, surveillance and even some counter-messaging efforts.  Our research proves that organizational authority is not an authentic or compelling messenger for individuals who are drawn in by groups like ISIS or other violence recruitment propaganda.

Our work also indicates that most of these traditional methods for countering violence are targeted at individuals who have already  attached and adopted a new ideology - by then - in most instances, mobilization to violence is imminent.

Our framework is built around an approach that seeks to inoculate against radical ideology before it even takes root, in an effort to subvert violence before it is even a conscious option.

We have identified a very early stage cognitive and emotional state of mind called Identity Vulnerability that occurs prior to awareness and attachment to extremist ideology.  This state of Vulnerability allows an individual to even be open to  extremist thinking.

This state of mind also enables someone to become more easily manipulated by external influence and instigators that threaten and indicate susceptibility to non-mainstream ideology. Attachment to a new narrative in this state of mind can change an individual's perception, personal qualities, beliefs and social ties.

 

Identity Vulnerable individuals exhibit a high need for cognitive closure or dislike of ambiguity, a quest for personal significance and the need to belong. They display high rejection sensitivity and binary, black and white thinking, which can easily translate into "me vs. them." Often times these individuals are ostracized or socially marginalized in some way, either due to institutionalized prejudice or their own alienating behaviors.   

 

These individuals actively seek narratives that validate their perceived grievances and allow them to regain a sense of empowerment and control over their own destiny. They seek to be the “hero” of their personal story and to escape feelings of insignificance characterizing their current situation.

 

Vulnerable individuals can have greater susceptibility to extremist recruitment of all varieties, which give them a sense of belonging and validation, creating perceived structure, order and significance in their lives.

 

The 'MPOWER Project believes that Identity Vulnerability serves as the baseline through which motivators to violence of all forms - to self and to others - should be considered, with other more individual and localized grievances layered on from there.

 

Individuals in this state of mind are at a crossroads where they are particularly vulnerable to messaging, which is how the Internet and Social Media can play such active, instigating roles in shaping their outlook. The importance of an alternative message for at-risk individuals to connect with or to plant seeds of doubt is pivotal during this stage.  This is a time when someone is seeking connection with something and when messaging can be the most influential in shaping their path forward.

We also believe that Identity Vulnerability represents a time when someone is most vulnerable to ideas and ideological attachments of many varieties - radical Islam, white supremacy, gangs, gun violence, domestic violence and in some cases, even drug addiction and violence against oneself.  We are focused on reaching individuals when they are in the early phase of questioning their significance and place within the world and just beginning to look for something to attach to.

Christian Picciolini, a Former skinhead living in the midwest who was recruited and radicalized just prior to his freshman year of high school recalls the rhetoric that fueled his identity crisis and says in his new book - “If Young People Don’t Find Their Purpose Through Positive Means, a Purpose Will Find Them.”  

The ‘MPOWER Project’s framework is built on four main pillars:

  1. Research

  2. Campaign Development

  3. Technology and

  4. Community


Most important, is our Research -

 

In addition to ongoing research on the nuances of the recruitment process to violence, radicalization and key indicators of Identity Vulnerability, we begin each project with an in-depth look at the social recruitment challenge that we are trying to message against, including: regional nuance, key causes, recruitment process, role of messaging in recruitment, case studies of threat actors and how governments/law enforcement/civil society have approached the issue to date - what worked/what didn’t.  

Campaign Development -

The In-depth research phase informs development of strategic messaging and a creative approach designed to influence the attitudes and, ultimately, behavior of at-risk individuals.  In this phase, we put together a creative working group and actually develop an alternative narrative campaign that leverages brand marketing principles and creative storytelling to inspire audiences and drive them with compelling calls to action presenting clear alternatives and encouraging engagement with pro-social organizations and programming on the ground.

 

These campaigns are similar to those that a brand would present to its consumer base to shape perception and build market share, but these campaigns are focused on out-branding destructive ideology of all kinds.

Technology -

We’re building an ad-tech, programmatic media inspired platform to deliver the message to the right audience leveraging psychographic indicators, social listening, predictive targeting and online behaviors to inform custom data segments

Community -

And Finally, Our approach to COMMUNITY is three-fold.

  1. Through messaging, we serve as a connection point to our identified at-risk audience

  2. Partnerships - because The ‘MPOWER Project does not develop programming so we are looking to build partnerships with on the ground, relevant organizations that we can drive our audience to through our messaging  - and

  3. We serve as a conduit bringing cross-sector experts and best practices to the same table to create a space and dialogue for this more human-centric approach to challenges that are generally considered hard security issues

 

Currently, we are building out our technology working group and beginning development of the strategic messaging and creative approach for the first campaign, which we’ll begin production for in August of this year.  

Regarding research, we are finalizing build out of a  database that will look at psychographic and more personal motivation indicators of individuals who have been convicted of acts of terrorism in the U.S. and other english-language countries to more comprehensively develop Identity Vulnerability as a theory. Ultimately, the goal is to develop this out regionally and by recruitment challenge so that we’re able to isolate the similarities and differences cross-challenge.

While we understand the limitations of messaging, the more we’re able to understand about our potential audience and their early stage state of mind, the more effective messaging we will be able to create.  Ultimately, the goal of The ‘MPOWER Project is to create doubt, introduce ambiguity and support identity empowerment.

I look forward to taking your questions.

 


Please remit all questions to Christy Provines at cgrace@mpowerproject.org .  Please note, this document is confidential and intended solely for presentation to The Group of Friends of Preventing Violent Extremism for the meeting topic: Social Media and Countering Violent Extremism in Youth, dated February 27, 2018. These remarks and the theory of Identity Vulnerability remain the sole property of The ‘MPOWER Project and should not be reproduced or repurposed in whole or in part and/or distributed beyond the intended audience without written permission from Christy Provines.