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As extremist groups use little-known and encrypted technology to share hate-filled content and plan new attacks, the University of Pittsburgh is joining forces with Carnegie Mellon University in a new effort to study and prevent the spread of online hate.
The new Collaboratory Against Hate Research and Action Center will unite Pitt’s expertise in social science, medicine, law and psychiatry with Carnegie Mellon’s expertise in analyzing the circulation and augmentation of extremist hate information online.
“The University of Pittsburgh is excited to grow our close collaboration with Carnegie Mellon,” said Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher. “We’ve launched Collaboratory Against Hate with a clear purpose: to mobilize our experts and assets together so that we can better understand and address extreme hate — in its many iterations and implications — across the world.”
Together, the two universities will study how extremism is generated, how it shapes polarizing views, how it provokes illegal acts and how it prevents minority groups from fair access to online platforms. The universities are in the process of building out the center’s research team and welcome interest from faculty and clinicians with relevant expertise. A survey is being circulated to faculty members, and a special meeting for Pitt faculty with interest in the topic will be scheduled shortly.
From there, the collaboratory will partner with various stakeholders — ranging from victimized communities and advocacy groups to technology companies and policymakers — to design intervention tools that can be used by people, groups and institutions with varying needs and agendas.
“Pitt is uniquely poised to partner in this effort,” said Kathleen Blee, who has studied white supremacism for more than 30 years and is the Bettye J. and Ralph E. Bailey Dean of Pitt’s Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. She, along with Lorrie Cranor, director and Bosch Distinguished Professor in Security and Privacy Technologies of Carnegie Mellon’s Cylab, will serve as the center’s codirectors.
“A number of faculty throughout the University are conducting research in the circulation and consequences of extremism, hate and related areas, including scholars in the Dietrich School, the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, School of Computing and Information, the Schools of Social Work and Law, and clinical and research experts at the School of Medicine,” Blee added. “We want to develop effective, research-based interventions that can be implemented.”
Blee said once faculty participants are identified, they will be invited to workshops and seminars, some featuring outside experts. The idea is to create a broad conversation about research needs and to introduce Pitt and Carnegie Mellon experts to one another so they can identify shared scholarly interests.
“This is a tremendous opportunity to fortify our partnership with Carnegie Mellon and to help spark further opportunity to respond to this urgent problem in broader society. The information that will come from this collaboration can help us to mobilize our efforts in taking action on our campuses and beyond in confronting hate. I look forward to the knowledge that will emerge from this collaboration and how it will help us better understand hate based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation and other forms of bias,” said Pitt Vice Chancellor and Chief Diversity Officer Clyde Pickett.
According to Blee, the internet has not only provided hate groups with a vast arena for recruiting new members, it also gives them a place to hide. A new analysis from the Southern Poverty Law Center details how extremist groups are migrating to lesser-known social media platforms and encrypted communications, bots and invite-only chat rooms to share information and plan new attacks, making it challenging to track activities. The report also highlights how widely used platforms such as Facebook and Twitter continue to “fall short on their pledges to combat the spread of violent rhetoric and conspiracy theories like QAnon.”
“The internet has made the distribution, mobilization and spread of online hate much harder to monitor, surveil and prosecute. It’s also more difficult to decipher the extent to which these virtual communities are reinforcing each other or being pushed by organized extremist organizations,” said Blee. “That’s created challenges for researchers and law enforcement who are trying to understand how these groups work and intervene.”
The sociologist said she is particularly interested in helping to develop de-radicalization efforts with children and adolescents who are targeted with extreme hate through social media, web sites and online gaming.
As the collaboratory moves ahead with funding seed projects for faculty teams and developing partnerships with institutions and tech companies, the community won’t be forgotten.
“We want to engage people in the community, particularly those in marginalized communities,” said Blee. “To develop interventions for children who are exposed to extremist content, we want to involve both parents and others who work with children to make sure that our interventions will be useful.”