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Event summary by Ritika Saligram:

On September 20, America in the World Consortium (AWC) Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr. Ashlyn Hand hosted Dr. Alexandra Evans via Zoom. Dr. Evans is an associate policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. She holds a PhD from the University of Virginia, and is an historian by training. Her work broadly focuses on strategic competition, military dynamics, and decision-making.

Dr. Evans began her remarks by defining the two central themes of her talk: extremism and the online ecosystem. She defined extremism as an umbrella concept that encompasses a range of individuals, groups, and movements that share a willingness to work outside of institutions and use force or threats to enact their desired changes. The online ecosystem is characterized by the activities of individuals, groups, and movements that unfold predominantly in virtual spaces or using internet-facing tools. Dr. Evans noted that extremist groups tend to be early adopters of new technology, as it lowers operating costs and provides for a larger reach, allowing them to connect with international communities while having some security guarantee and a degree of anonymity. She also mentioned that that the activities extremist individuals have used the internet for have remained static: networking and coordination; recruitment and radicalization; inter-and intra-group knowledge transfer; sharing of tactical manuals; fundraising and fund transfer; and mobilization to action. The change to focus on is at a tactical level, as extremist behavior is not new outside of the virtual world.

Dr. Evans then spoke about amplification and anonymity online. Due to the easy proliferation and accessibility of online content, more individuals are exposed to extremist content than they would have been otherwise. This amplification is concerning in light of the fact that internet sites have incentives to push people towards content which they are predisposed to view and engage with based on their prior viewing history (sites have algorithms that accomplish this). This can have the effect of exacerbating polarization. Thus, users’ ability to distinguish between malicious information, misleading information, and disinformation is hard given the diffusion of sources of authority and how quickly information is shared. She added that anonymity may lower inhibitions and exaggerate perceptions of differences between people, which encourages the process of ‘otherization’ and the adoption of extreme views or even aggression.

Dr. Evans also discussed the unknowns in the field. It’s unclear whether access to the internet is changing the nature of extremist ideas themselves — are the same ideas resonating inside and outside the virtual space? We are also unsure if the tools we use to encourage deradicalization offline will work in online environments. However, Dr. Evans was clear that responding to this challenge will require the efforts of the whole government and society at large.

During the Q&A, audience members posed questions about removing content online, deplatforming individuals, radicalization and law enforcement efforts, and understanding the connections and differences between the ‘real’ and ‘online’ worlds. Dr. Evans ended her remarks with a caution towards our tendency to respond reactively rather than anticipate, drawing particular attention to the concerning rise of gendered political violence through the violent misogynist and involuntary celibate movement.