Roadmap People and Community

Disrupting extremist conspiracy theories

As the nation mourns another massacre by an alleged white supremacist, University of Miami researchers hope their team approach will counter those who act on hate.
Gloria Garces kneels in front of crosses at a makeshift memorial near the scene of a mass shooting at a shopping complex Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019, in El Paso, Texas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Gloria Garces kneels in front of crosses at a makeshift memorial near the scene of the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas. Photo: John Locher/Associated Press

The hate-filled, anti-immigrant screed that a lone gunman is believed to have posted minutes before killing 22 people and wounding dozens of others at an El Paso Walmart on Saturday echoes the sentiments of those who think there is an organized conspiracy to systematically replace white people with black and brown invaders.

As Patrick Crusius, the accused shooter who is now in custody, clearly stated in his alleged writings, “This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas. They are the instigators, not me. I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.”

What compels people like Crusius not only to embrace but act on what are known as white genocide or white replacement conspiracy theories, and more importantly how to disrupt them, is the very subject that an interdisciplinary team of University of Miami researchers is exploring—an endeavor that has taken on a renewed sense of urgency since Saturday’s massacre. The mass shooting, which was followed by another in Dayton, Ohio, where the motive is still unclear, came just a day after it was publically acknowledged that the FBI considers extremist conspiracy theories a serious domestic terrorist threat, one that will “drive both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts.”

“Obviously law enforcement has to address this, but both the El Paso shooting and the FBI designation of the very problem we are studying as a critical issue for our country is a great motivator,” said political scientist Joseph Uscinski, a conspiracy theory expert and member of the University of Miami Laboratory for Integrative Knowledge (U-LINK) team that just unveiled its preliminary plans for countering extremist conspiracy theories (ECTs). “It makes us even more motivated to find countermeasures for this so we will try to release our results as quickly as possible.”

Added fellow team member Manohar Murthi, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, “When we started our work a year ago, Charlottesville was fresh on our minds, so I think our team felt the urgency for this from the beginning. But now the larger public is recognizing that there is some urgency for understanding and countering this problem, which is not a new problem. ECTs have historical antecedents, but what is different now is online social media. Because there are no gatekeepers things are disseminated very quickly.”

Funded by a Phase I grant from U-LINK, the University of Miami Laboratory for Integrative Knowledge, Uscinski and Murthi’s Countering ONline Networked Extremist Conspiracy Theories, or CONNECT, team, recently expanded its membership to focus on ECTs in general, but specifically on the white genocide extremist conspiracy theory for the team’s U-LINK grant.

That proved both prophetic and timely. As Murthi noted in discussing the CONNECT team’s progress at a symposium for U-LINK grantees last week, the Australian man who killed 51 Muslims at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, this past March, and the Pennsylvania man who killed 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last October both believed in the false white genocide theory.

So, too, Uscinski said, did the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who in protesting the removal of a statue of a Confederate general in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2018, chanted “Jews will not replace us!”—an explicit reference to the belief that a shadowy Jewish elite is orchestrating white replacement.

“Those who believe in white genocide theories have made it clear in their writings and their actions that they believe that corporations and governments are conspiring to get rid of white people and their culture and replace them with cheaper, non-white workers,” said Uscinski, whose work on ECTs was cited in the FBI’s internal memo acquired and released by Yahoo last Friday. “They believe that demographic change is purposeful and part of a conspiracy, rather than just the regular outcome of globalization.”

Uscinski and his fellow CONNECT team members hope that their scholarly, multidisciplinary approach to understanding the links between ECT content, how people respond to it, and the effects of social networks will enable them to build a cognitive model to identify those who are disseminating or acting on those beliefs and design and deploy countermeasures to disrupt them.

To that end, they are in the midst of completing a random survey of 2,000 Americans on their beliefs about ETCs and their tendency to commit violence or engage in online harassment because of those beliefs. They plan to conduct another survey this fall to measure both the expression of extremist views on social media, and the effectiveness of counter-narratives designed to mitigate such divisive beliefs.

“We are interested in extremists, but we want to see what the roots of extremism and extremist behavior are so we can’t just look at extremists,” said Casey Klofstad, an associate professor of political science who helped design the CONNECT surveys. “We’re looking at a chain process, whereby someone goes from underlying predispositions to belief systems to action. That’s essentially the concept of the cognitive model that we’re talking about.”

Even in its infancy, the model is generating considerable interest. As Murthi noted at the U-LINK symposium, Jigsaw, which is the research arm of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, already has a stake in the CONNECT research.

In addition to Murthi, Uscinski, and Klofstad, other members of the CONNECT team include John Fuchion, associate professor in the Department of English; Michelle Seelig, associate professor in the Department of Cinema and Interactive Media; Kamal Premaratne, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Stefan Wuchty, associate professor in the Department of Computer Science; Caleb Everett, professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology; Lisa Baker, head of Richter Library’s Learning and Research Services; and Sandra Kübler, a linguist at Indiana University.