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Top Local Universities Team Up to Combat Extremist Hate Groups

On October 27, 2018, a gunman stormed the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, killing 11 worshipers. That horrific tragedy spurred conversations that ultimately led to the creation of the Collaboratory Against Hate Research and Action Center.

The University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) pooled their wealth of knowledge and resources to form the Collaboratory. Leading the efforts are the dean of Pitt’s School of Arts & Sciences, Kathleen Blee, a sociologist, and Lorrie Cranor, a computer scientist who heads CMU’s CyLab.

Teaming Up for the Greater Good

“The Collaboratory is based on the idea that the complementary strengths of Pitt and CMU, along with our ability to partner with groups in the community and beyond, positions us to be able to take effective steps to mitigate extremist hate whether it is online or in real life and to minimize the consequences of that hate in terms of violence and terrorist acts toward individuals and groups,” explained Blee.

“The Collaboratory is not meant to be just a research institution; it’s meant to be an institution that brings together people with the connections and ability to intervene productively in a problem that is escalating,” she added.

Through a variety of methods that target different schemes, the organization hopes to limit the reach of hate group messaging.

“By analyzing the language of harassment and hate speech, we can write computer software that breaks that speech down into its component parts to understand how it evolves over time,” explained Cranor. “For example, today a group may be using a particular vocabulary. As they get blocked, they use other words. Computer systems can figure this out, allowing us to continually block their efforts.”

Blee explains why this is important. “Extremist hate is reaching children and adolescents at a much higher extent than in the past. Before the Internet, this was something you had to search out; now, this group is targeted by extremist hate groups through online gaming, children’s games, and innocuous searches they’re doing on the Internet.

“They may not understand what it is or how to deal with it,” she added. “Often, this hateful content and violent content reaches children through a manner that their parents cannot monitor.”

In fact, people are often exposed to extremist hate groups without realizing it. “These extremist groups figure out the types of people that would be most susceptible to their message and target ads to those people,” said Cranor. “Or, a person may watch a video that has mildly racist ideas in it that then links to a video that’s more racist.”

The Collaboratory plans to use this information to build tools that make it easier for human moderators to keep track and address these matters. “We’re also looking at how groups form and splinter—we are exploring a lot of different angles,” said Cranor.

Understanding Extremist Hate Groups

Blee’s studies of extremist groups began more than 30 years ago when she was conducting research for a book on the 1920s Ku Klux Klan with a focus on women participating in the Klan. Since then, she has studied how people join hate groups, what kinds of things happen within hate groups, and the process of exiting these groups, including why people leave and how effective they are at leaving.

“I wanted to know how often they go back,” said Blee.

She gathered her information by interviewing the people in these movements and focusing on what motivated them. “I wondered what they were like on the inside,” she explained.

Understanding the reasons why extremist hate groups recruit members offers insight into their motivations as well, said Blee.

“Their reasons for recruiting may depend on the time period; in the 1920s, for example, when the Ku Klux Klan was so large, they recruited because they were running for office. They wanted to be a political party and had some success electing governors and mayors across the country,” she said.

“Some groups, like the Proud Boys, recruit to project the image of strength through numbers,” she continued, adding that other groups may involve pyramid schemes, with money flowing to the top.

A Collaboratory of Hope

The universities are optimistic that through their combined efforts, they can bring about change. CMU is strong in computer science and information as well as working with people through social media. The University of Pittsburgh’s team includes experts in pediatrics, public health, law and social sciences. Their collaboration will hopefully lead to an understanding of this problem in a much more holistic way.

“We’re building the team now—introducing people to each other,” said Blee. “Projects will emerge and questions will emerge as this goes forward. We’re clear on overall goals, but also flexible in terms of the needs of the community.”

Racism didn’t appear overnight and the problem won’t be solved quickly. “Through a mix of projects, we will be able to see some modest short-term improvements while continuing efforts to combat racism on a local, national and international level,” said Cranor.

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