Inoculating Against the Other Virus
Brian Hughes is a Research Assistant Professor in the program of Justice, Law, and Criminology at American University. He is also the co-founder and Associate Director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL), where he develops studies and interventions to reduce the risk of radicalization to extremism. His scholarly research explores the impact of communication technology on political and religious extremism, terrorism and fringe culture. This work seeks to identify the affective and material commonalities between extremists of differing ideologies, cultures, times, and places. His writing has appeared in the CTC Sentinel at West Point, the International Journal of Communication, CNN, and the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right.
Professor, American University
Cynthia Miller-Idriss is Professor in the School of Public Affairs and in the School of Education, and runs the Polarization and Extremism Research & Innovation Lab (PERIL) in the Center for University Excellence (CUE). Before her move into the School of Public Affairs in fall 2020, she was Professor of Education and Sociology at American University. In addition to her faculty role, Dr. Miller-Idriss is also Director of Strategy and Partnerships at the U.K.-based Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right and serves on the international advisory board of the Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX) in Oslo, Norway.
She has spent two decades researching radical and extreme youth culture in Europe and the U.S., most recently through a focus on how clothing, style and symbols act as a gateway into white supremacist extremism. Prior to her arrival at American University in August 2013, Dr. Miller-Idriss served on the faculty of New York University for a decade, and also taught previously at the University of Maryland and the University of Michigan. She holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in Sociology and a Masters in Public Policy from the University of Michigan, and a B.A. (magna cum laude) in Sociology and German Area Studies from Cornell University. She is a former AICGS research fellow.
Meili Criezis is a Graduate Fellow at the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL), a PhD student in Justice, Law, and Criminology at American University, and a Global Network on Extremism and Technology (GNET) Contributor. Her research focuses on Islamic State propaganda, extremists’ presence on encrypted apps, and gender and political violence.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose a wide array of challenges, ranging from maintaining and increasing vaccination rates, to promoting digestible information to educate the public about the dangers of the virus, slowing down rates of infection, and more. At the heart of such challenges stands the proliferation of misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation includes the spreading of false information regardless of intentions to mislead while disinformation constitutes the intentional spread of false information. Regardless of type and intention, they bolster conspiracy theories—viruses in their own right.
The abundance of conspiracies about COVID-19 reflects the acceleration of a serious wider issue: the increasing proliferation of extremist conspiracy theories. The question of how best to combat this danger remains, but the answer very well may lie in what is called “attitudinal inoculation.”
There is little evidence about the effectiveness of most strategies to combat extremism, due in part to the lack of empirically valid formal evaluations and an absence of transparency to the public. Even less is known about the effectiveness of combating conspiracy-rooted forms of extremism, which can be harder to counter without backfiring and making matters worse.
Extremism is the belief that one group of people is in dire conflict with other groups who don’t share the same racial or ethnic, gender or sexual, religious, or political identity. Extremists separate the world into black-and-white categories based on these identities and believe that this conflict can only be resolved through total separation, domination, or other forms of violence.
Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, are beliefs that events in the world do not occur randomly or naturally, but rather are a result of orchestration by external parties—elites or those who hold power—who have nefarious or self-serving intentions.
Part of the challenge of developing effective intervention strategies to address conspiracy-based radicalization and extremism comes from the fact that most research on extremism has focused on the organizational tactics and strategies of hierarchical groups with clear chains of command, rather than on post-organizational online ecosystems where individuals self-radicalize in online networks across multiple platforms. Conspiracy theories, particularly in the digital age, are highly decentralized, migrating across online ecosystems, and adapting organically to changing conditions. They include antisemitic conspiracy theories which adapt to new contexts. For example, individuals have created memes or social media posts about news events such as migrant caravans or COVID-19 and folded them into already well-established larger antisemitic conspiracy theories. They adapt, react, and incorporate.
Despite the challenges presented by such flexible conspiracy echo chambers (especially in online spaces), one promising solution includes looking at evidence-based public health frameworks to address attitudinal change. This approach is called attitudinal inoculation.
The how-to of attitudinal inoculation
The attitudinal inoculation technique builds emotional and cognitive resistance to manipulative persuasion tactics and rhetoric such as those found in fraudulent advertising, political propaganda—or conspiracy theories. By now, the science and practice of attitudinal inoculation are well established. Its techniques have been studied and refined since William McGuire began work developing attitudinal inoculation on (among other topics) dental hygiene in the early 1960s.
Attitudinal inoculation strategies are simple and precise. First, a subject is warned that they may encounter persuasive material such as political propaganda or a conspiracy theory. Next, they are cautioned that while false, these manipulative messages can fool even highly intelligent, moral people. Inoculators then show the subject small “microdoses” of the propaganda—say, a meme or short video clip—against which they are to be inoculated. The inoculator explains the manipulative technique on display in the microdose and offers a few reasons why it is false and manipulative.
Attitudinal inoculation proves highly effective in building resistance to manipulation. Inoculated subjects routinely attribute far less credibility to the manipulative techniques against which they have been inoculated and they report significantly less willingness to support the causes associated with the propaganda. Perhaps most encouraging of all, they report higher levels of counterarguing and emotional hostility against both the messages themselves and the causes they represent.
This approach is promising because it circumvents many of the problems traditional approaches to combating extremism have encountered. Attitudinal inoculation spends very little time on fact-checking, which has been shown to have inconsistent effects. Importantly, attitudinal inoculation also treats audiences with respect. This is not one of the many failed countering violent extremism (CVE) approaches, which were often based off of flimsy disproven theories about who is at risk for becoming a terrorist in ways that further marginalized and racially profiled communities. Above all, attitudinal inoculation does not tell people what to think—only how to spot the ways that others might try to hijack their beliefs. It is a form of empowerment and recognition of individual agency.
Inoculation represents a promising technique to deal with conspiracy theories precisely because it allows for the fact that while conspiracy theories are false, manipulative, and damaging, there are nevertheless examples of actual proven conspiracies involving criminality and corruption at high levels of society. The Iran-Contra affair, Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction,” or the German Plutonium-Affäre constitute examples of actual clandestine acts damaging to democracy. Their very existence provides credibility to conspiracy theories. By the same token, conspiracy theories give dishonest leaders an easy opportunity to minimize and avoid accountability. By educating people about the narratives and rhetoric that are unique to conspiracy theories, attitudinal inoculations help thread a needle that takes into account these complicated realities.
Extremism and conspiracy theories are overlapping and mutually reinforcing ways of seeing the world. Not all forms of extremism are conspiratorial, and not all conspiracy theories count as extremism. But the places where they intersect are extraordinarily dangerous in terms of potential violence and prove very hard to combat with traditional counter-extremism tactics and techniques. Attitudinal inoculation offers an empirically proven opportunity to not only challenge conspiracy theories but also proactively vaccinate individuals against conspiracies before these harmful narratives are encountered.
This article is part of the AICGS project “The Importance of the Transatlantic Partnership in Times of Global Crises” and is generously funded by the European Recovery Program (ERP) of the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action (BMWK).