As part of an international initiative, a group of Penn State students has created a website aimed at countering terrorist propaganda.
Sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security, the initiative, called Peer-to-Peer: Challenging Extremism, enlists groups of students at universities around the world to work on ways to deal with online extremism.
The objective is to eventually adopt the best idea and make it a part of counterterrorism policy, said Peter Forster, senior lecturer and associate dean for online and professional education in Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology.
“Homeland Security is very concerned about the ability of extremists’ organizations, ISIS in particular, to use social media as a recruitment vehicle,” Forster said.
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“The goal of the project is to have student-aged people come up with methods of getting out other messages to at-risk people, to give other options out through social media, through the internet, that will hopefully counter to an extent the impact of ISIS and others,” he said.
The initiative is also sponsored by Facebook and EdVenture Partners. Participating groups at each university are given a $2,000 grant at the start of each semester.
Forster said Penn State joined 18 months ago when he recruited a group of students interested in the project. Team members include Mason Northrop, McKenzie Powell, Sean Parsons and Hope Wimer.
The team’s project, Stories of the Stolen, is an online memorial to victims of violent extremism. Northrop, the project manager, said his team wanted to create an inclusive memorial that puts all forms of extremism and its victims onto one website. Often such sites are specific to one act of terrorism, such as 9/11.
Two goals of Stories of the Stolen are to create a sense of unity among victims and to discredit their attackers, Northrop said.
The team received an honorable mention at a competition in February in Washington, where projects were presented to practitioners and experts in the field.
One of the three finalists was a group that set up a public dinner with refugees. Northrop said seeing the ideas of the finalists helped his group figure out what works and wins.
After the competition, team members focused on investing their grant money in outsourcing their website design to Told Media, a State College organization.
“We’re going to invest more money into the website because that’s really the main vehicle behind this,” Forster said.
The updated website, which is not yet ready, allows them to upload biographies directly, Northrop said.
The design of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website helped the team formulate its idea. The memorial allows visitors to click on images of individuals and read stories of their lives.
“Extremism crosses all kinds of lines, of course, as we know,” Forster said. “What (the team is) really looking at is raising awareness of the impact of extremism on people and trying to build support.”
Caralyn Reese is a Penn State journalism student.