Whole-of-Community Resilience

Helping young people build resilience against manipulative extremist narratives and conspiracy theories requires all adults in a young person’s trusted network to be equipped with the skills and knowledge to intervene.
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“Equity across the continuum of education is essential for the pursuit and the expansion of democracy,” writes Jalaya Liles Dunn, director of Learning for Justice. Achieving such equity necessitates building resilience against ideologies and narratives that individuals disseminate to divide, oppress and harm others. It requires dismantling white supremacy.

A key strategy for building this resilience across generations is offering communities tools to both identify insidious extremist narratives and strengthen their own care networks. In November 2022, the SPLC, and our partners at American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab, or PERIL, published Building Networks & Addressing Harm: A Community Guide to Online Youth Radicalization—a free resource intended to help communities put this two-sided strategy into practice.

As part of a growing suite of resources to help maintain community health and cohesion in the face of divisive beliefs and rhetoric, this guide expands on our first publication, Building Resilience & Confronting Risk: A Parents & Caregivers Guide to Online Radicalization. Both resources inform adults about the drivers of young people’s susceptibility to extremist radicalization and detail warning signs to watch for in young people who might be exposed to manipulative disinformation. However, while the Parents & Caregivers Guide focuses primarily on the adults caring for young people within the home, the Building Networks guide seeks to equip all adults in a young person’s care network with tools and resources.

“Every trusted adult in a young person’s life has their own role to play in building resilience against manipulation by extremists,” says PERIL Associate Director, Brian Hughes, Ph.D. “Whether you’re a teacher, a counselor, coach, clergy, whomever—there’s something unique that you bring to the table, which will help you reach that youth.”

The Building Networks guide delves into those unique roles with specific guidance trusted adults can use to make inroads with young people. Coaches, for example, can harness team sports’ camaraderie and emotional undulations to hold conversations about respect, healthy relationships and harmful gender stereotypes such as hypermasculinity. Similarly, religious leaders within the community are well positioned to inspire ongoing community projects fostering inclusion and resilience in the wake of national tragedies and local controversies.

In addition to focusing on the community level and investing in noncarceral approaches, the Building Networks guide also seeks to center the needs of those targeted or harmed by hateful language and actions. While radicalization depends on the free will of the young person imbibing that content, individuals who hold targeted and marginalized identities are not afforded the choice of whether to experience these harms. Trusted adults in young people’s lives must show up, engage and advocate. Sometimes supporting a young person targeted by hate-fueled words and actions means simply listening and recording. Other times it means promoting inclusive policies and actively creating spaces where young people feel safe, respected and cared for.

The SPLC and PERIL also agree that transparency is crucial in responsibly developing preventative resources. To test the efficacy of the Building Networks guide, PERIL conducted an impact study of 739 adults who interact with and care for young people in some capacity. This process consisted of pretesting participants’ base knowledge of radicalization as well as their capacity and willingness to intervene on behalf of a vulnerable young person. Then, after participants read the guide, a post-test with the same questions was administered to determine “subjects’ aggregate change in awareness and knowledge about radicalization as well as capacity, capability, confidence and willingness to intervene.” Through this methodology, our study found the guide to be highly effective at bolstering community resilience to extremist manipulation.

More specifically, in just over 12 minutes spent reading the guide, 85% of participants reported understanding how young people become radicalized online either “mostly” or “a great deal.” Further, study participants’ post-test scores reflected a 35% increase in overall understanding of extremism-related topics and pathways to radicalization. After reading the Building Networks guide, “74% of participants who were previously unsure or not aware became aware of filter bubbles,” 45.39% became aware of scientific racism, 65.17% became aware of moral disengagement, and 57.23% of impact study participants became aware of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory.

Knowledge about pathways to radicalization and warning signs of susceptibility to harmful beliefs are foundational to helping young people stay safe as they navigate an increasingly online world. When trusted adults are equipped with information about conspiracies like the “great replacement” and scientific racism, they can help young people better understand the insidious tendrils that manipulate people into believing harmful and bigoted ideas.

However, such knowledge is largely ineffective if adults do not act on that knowledge. With study participants reporting a 29% increase in overall capacity to address extremism, the Building Networks guide has been demonstrated to empower informed caregivers and trusted adults to act on behalf of young people. Survey respondents reported high levels of confidence after reading the guide, with 77% feeling “‘mostly’ or ‘a great deal’ prepared to talk with youth about online extremism” and 76% feeling “mostly” or “greatly” prepared to intervene if they suspect that a young person in their life has encountered extremist values.

Across demographics, geography and caregiver roles, the impact study emphasized the collective nature that effectively challenging extremist radicalization necessitates. Older study participants reported a higher willingness to discuss extremism-related topics with youth, those living in a rural area were found to be significantly more capable of engaging young people on topics related to extremism than respondents in large cities, and women scored higher on post-test knowledge accuracy than men.

“Mental health providers and youth mentors also did exceptionally well in the impact study,” says Hughes, PERIL’s associate director. After reading the guide, this group of trusted adults reported a significant increase in their capacity, capability, confidence and willingness to address extremism with young people. “If we are going to build an effective, noncarceral approach to preventing extremism,” says Hughes, “people in the therapeutic professions and youth mentors especially have to be equipped with all the knowledge and resources we can provide.”

With these impact study results, we know that effectively challenging hate, extremism, mis- and disinformation is within our grasp if only we reinforce our whole-of-community strengths. The Building Networks guide, “as it seeks to empower all trusted adults in a young person’s life,” says Hughes, “recognizes and elevates the need for diverse perspectives” as a foundational component of the movement towards a just, equitable and inclusive society.

Related Resources

Prevention and Resilience: Supporting Young People Through Polarizing Times
During this time of political and social turmoil, build networks of trusted adults to help young people understand, contextualize and counter manipulative and harmful information.

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.

Building Networks & Addressing Harm: A Community Guide to Online Youth Radicalization
This guide offers adults who interact with young people the tools to build resilient communities of inclusion.

Learning the Landscape of Digital Literacy
This framework provides digital literacy training for educators to stem the flow of misinformation and help young people participate meaningfully in online communities, interpret the changing digital landscape and unlock the power of the internet for good.

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