Conversations About Gun Violence, Disinformation and Extremism

To support young people as they grapple with harms motivated by extremism, PERIL director of research, Pasha Dashtgard, Ph.D., argues that it’s incumbent upon the whole community to address hate-fueled violence.
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“We can’t process this kind of violence,” explained Pasha Dashtgard, Ph.D., of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University. “We’ve gone so far down the wrong path… that this is not a conversation about gun control; it’s a conversation about safety in America.” 

In his role as director of research at PERIL, Dashtgard leads a dynamic team of experts seeking to stem the flow of disinformation and mitigate violence through building resilience against extremist narratives. As a trained social psychologist, Dashtgard’s research focuses on the mental health implications of imbibing extremist narratives, particularly those associated with male supremacy and harmful conceptualizations of masculinity and gender.  

Across time and geography, the collective consciousness in the United States is continually redefined in relation to gun violence. Whether homicide, suicide, mass shooting or accidental death, families and communities across the country are forced to forever grapple with profound loss. When violent attacks happen, particularly those motivated by hate and bigotry, it can be difficult to provide comfort and explanation to young people. While no approach or conversation will be right for every person, Dashtgard recommends a few overarching points to help young people navigate the pain and confusion that often accompanies gun violence.

Counter False Narratives

“Talk about the assumptions and perceptions that motivate extremist gun violence,” Dashtgard argues. Rather than dismissing the perpetrator of such violence as bad or crazy, “talk about the male supremacy, talk about the white supremacy.” Without confronting an individual’s motivating ideology, we “obscure the reality that people can get pushed to do violent and horrible things and that guns facilitate this.” 

Providing a better understanding of the drivers of extremist gun violence necessitates separating conversations about mental health from those about gun violence. Blaming gun violence on mental health “totally erases… the ideology that underpins racial violence and violence against women,” explains Dashtgard. “It just says that gun violence is an anomaly, it’s a weird aberration, some glitch in [the perpetrator’s] brain and not something that is predictable, not something that has to do with the readily accessible nature of guns in America. That absolves a lot of people of a lot of responsibility.” 

Similarly, trusted adults should help young people build resilience against the implicit racism that often undergirds responses to gun violence. Fears of what Dashtgard calls “the imagined other” are stoked in relation to gun violence when prominent media and political figures build dichotomies between urban and rural, Democratic and Republican communities. Help young people understand how these stereotypes and mischaracterizations perpetuate racist and classist belief systems. Discuss how these false narratives harm your own community, whether that be by derailing discussions of sensible gun laws or by mitigating necessary financial and social investment in systems of community support. 

Having conversations about manipulative extremist narratives and ideologies also allows young people to recognize when they encounter this messaging in their own lives. When young people feel equipped to confront such manipulative rhetoric and are bolstered by the knowledge that acts of extremist gun violence are often predictable and preventable, feelings of safety are more easily restored. 

Building such resilience far upstream of exposure to bigoted and manipulative narratives helps stem the flow of disinformation and curb acts of hate-fueled violence. Resources like SPLC and PERIL’s Parents & Caregivers Guide to Online Youth Radicalization can support adults as they help young people recognize radicalizing narratives that can compound gun violence.

Protect Young People’s Well-Being

In addition to countering false narratives about gun violence with facts and information about motivating ideologies, it’s important to ensure that young people’s mental, emotional and physical well-being are cared for. “We don’t need to consume all of the media and content that covers [gun violence],” Dashtgard says. “You can traumatize yourself by constantly watching [coverage of] Uvalde.” 

For young people in particular, limiting the consumption of such media content is important to maintaining their sense of well-being. Roxane Cohen Silver, Ph.D., Dashtgard’s advisor at the University of California, Irvine, has studied the impacts of ingesting large quantities of media covering traumatic events. “Consuming a lot of media after a large-scale community disaster can perpetuate a cycle of emotional distress, ongoing worry about the future and even greater media consumption and distress when future disasters arise,” Silver and her colleagues report. “Though staying informed during these events is important, limiting exposure to mass media coverage of them may help people cope with the threat.”

Parents and caregivers should be intentional about the amount of content young people in their lives are consuming. Exposure to such coverage should be accompanied by time to reflect, discuss, ask questions and contextualize the violent act. However, if young people hesitate to discuss gun violence, planning an activity to transition away from the topic of gun violence can provide respite from cyclical news media coverage. 

Listen to young people’s fears and reassure them that the networks of trusted adults in their lives are making every effort to keep them safe. In some instances, particularly when young people share the identity of those who were targeted in the violent event being discussed, make accommodations to ease anxieties. This could range from simply changing the route or mode of travel to school to seeking out mental health care focused on addressing fears related to gun violence. 

Bolster Community Safety

With regards to broader community responses to gun violence, Dashtgard explains that it comes down to what makes a community feel safe. “[Communities] need housing, they need access to stable food, they need a system of education… and a system that delivers economic stability to its residents. These are the material conditions that develop safety,” he says. When such needs aren’t being met in a country where civilian-held firearms outnumber citizens an estimated 120 to 100, violence is an inevitable consequence. 

In age-appropriate ways, discuss concerns that young people might have about safety within their own community. Encourage young people to engage with the broader network of community leaders and trusted adults. To help young people feel supported through harms they’ve witnessed or experienced, and to identify and build resilience against extremist rhetoric, PERIL and SPLC have developed Building Networks & Addressing Harm: A Community Guide to Online Youth Radicalization

Beyond networks of trusted individuals, involvement with local organizations, advocacy campaigns or volunteer opportunities can help young people build a sense of social cohesion and investment in their community. Such efforts will foster understanding and empathy for diverse identities and experiences, while also restoring a sense of safety and support. 

Gun violence is “not a natural disaster” explains Dashtgard. “It’s a human-made, human-caused disaster,” which makes it “incumbent upon the whole-of-community” to address.

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