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Drexel Students Join Anti-Extremism Cyber Fight

February 20, 2015

Masked man holding an assault rifle with social media icons nearby.
Social media use in the fight against violent extremists is the focus of a new consulting class at Drexel.

There’s no denying it — violent extremists are good at social media.

In August, as shocking video of American journalist James Foley’s execution by beheading cycled through the internet, the BBC’s Dave Lee said the social media efforts of ISIS (or ISIL) are “staggering — mimicking the kind of efforts corporations would invest millions in for marketing purposes.”

So why not tackle that problem like a corporation would?

The U.S. State Department is enlisting the help of a special consultation class formed at Drexel this term to come up with strategies for disrupting radicals’ recruitment efforts.

“The State Department’s objective is to tap into university students to get millenials’ ideas for how to counter extremism, particularly violent extremism,” said Dana D’Angelo, a professor in the LeBow College of Business.

D’Angelo is running the class within the umbrella of the State Department’s “P2P: Challenging Extremism.”

P2P stands for peer-to-peer, which is the key focus of the program: Getting students to connect with their peers worldwide. The thought is that the generation that grew up with the Internet might have the best ideas to turn the tide in the cyber recruitment war.

“We’ve failed in the social media battle with extremists,” said Roger K., a marketing/legal studies pre-junior in the class. “This is our call to action.”

Roger’s last name, along with the last names of his classmates, have been withheld due to safety concerns posed by the State Department.

Although jihadists like ISIS/ISIL and al-Qaeda are the most obvious targets of such efforts on social media, the goal is to make the strategies applicable to any threat.

Twenty-three other universities across the world are participating in the program, stretching from the U.S. through Europe and into the Middle East, Africa and even Australia.

Each university’s consulting team receives a $2,000 budget to come up with a pilot social media strategy or program. At the end of the program, which extends into the next term, the State Department will choose two top North American teams and the best international class to present their ideas in Washington, D.C., to State Department officials and other top government leaders.

 Although there’s no built-in cooperation between the universities now, D’Angelo would love to create some links to help the project along. But the class is still in early development and plans are fluid.

“There are a lot of balls in the air right now,” D’Angelo said.

The consulting class is small: just 11 students who D’Angelo hand-picked for the opportunity.

“Honestly, these students have impressed me and they show a lot of passion,” D’Angelo said. “We’re calling them the ‘Dream Team.’”

Right now, in the early stages of the class, the Dream Team is doing a lot of research.

“We’re focusing in on what traits we consider at risk in university students,” said Jeff N., a junior in the class who is studying business and legal studies. “We’re taking the first step to prevent them from being recruited.”

In addition to their research on strategies, D’Angelo explained they’re trying to establish metrics to test their strategies’ effectiveness.

“The project is very realistic in that, prior to piloting what they want to do, they need to figure out where people are right now in their feelings,” she said. “How do you measure those philosophical traits and feelings?”

For expert advice, D'Angelo said they're working with Norman Balchunas, the director of national security programs in the Drexel Cybersecurity Institute.

So far, the Drexel students feel the right route might be to flip the negativity spewed by radical groups online.

“We’re really looking at the behaviors over there and thinking about this sense of community,” said Madison R., a junior marketing and international business major in the consulting class. “We want to build a positive and not a negative.”

By the end of the course, the team hopes to have some sort of pilot program, app or strategy to demonstrate and measure. Although the course runs through June, D’Angelo said she expects the State Department to extend the program to other classes of Drexel consultants after the current one.

“If other students go on and continue this, it’ll be great to go back and continue to reflect on what they’ve done and check up on it,” Jeff said.

Roger is excited to move into uncharted territory like this.

“It’s challenging,” he said. “You’re not going to find a textbook example of anything. This will take some detailed research and analysis and, for me, that’s exciting and challenging. I don’t want to sit and read something in a textbook that has been done. I want to create this.”

Jeff described the program and the consulting class as “working for something greater than yourself.”

Madison feels the same way.

“I want to be a part of this because of the fact that (extremism) is spreading,” she said. “It’s a global issue.”

“I think that with the social awareness, it’s not ‘over there’ anymore. It’s here,” D’Angelo said. “If these students can make some kind of impact, maybe we can prevent one person from going down that path. Then I’ll feel like I’ve made a difference in a way that I never have before.”