From their classroom seats, college students at the Detroit Lakes campus of Minnesota State Community and Technical College (M State) argued how to best define violent extremism as images of the Ku Klux Klan, Nazis and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) popped up on the overhead screen.
The class has joined a front line of students worldwide who are waging a marketing battle against extremism and the terrorists it emboldens. As part of an international competition, college students have developed digital campaigns to counter extremism. The campaign is meant for teens and young adults, who are vulnerable to be swept up in recruitment messages for extremist causes.
This semester, students at 53 colleges across the globe are executing their strategies in the Peer 2 Peer: Challenging Extremism project, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and Facebook, and managed by EdVenture Partners, a California-based consulting firm. In the fall, there will be 150 schools participating.
“None of us really knew a lot about ISIS,” said Courtney Jones, 29, who is working toward a degree in business management marketing and sales at M State. “Just kind of where we are, it didn’t really affect us so we thought. We, as well as the other students that we surveyed, found out that we don’t know much.”
That changed after Jones’ advertising and promotion class decided to enter, making M State the only school in the state to participate in P2P.
The experience, the first for M State, has given students exposure to a global issue as well as the business challenges they would face as marketing managers, said Bryan Christensen, the marketing instructor at the college who has spearheaded the P2P project.
“It gave us a couple real-life scenarios to work with,” Christensen said. “They had to create a concept and go out to do research on it and from there start to try to find some solutions and then implement it.”
The 20 students in the class decided to create an educational website called “United We Stand” to help teach other college students about extremism and how it can impact people who think they are a world away from terrorist threats. The campaign also includes social media, T-shirts and brochures handed out at M State campuses.
The decision to develop a website came after the class surveyed close to 400 students on their campus about their thoughts on extremism. Out of those who responded, more than 44 percent said their primary source of knowledge on violent extremism was social media. A similar percentage of students said they thought ISIL posed an immediate threat to them.
Social media plays “a crucial role” in the radicalization and sometimes mobilization of U.S.-based ISIL sympathizers, according to a December report by the Program on Extremism at George Washington University’s Center on Cyber and Homeland Security.
Minnesota has been a hotbed for recruits for violent jihadist groups like Al-Shabab and, more recently, ISIL. Last week in a Minneapolis courtroom, accused ISIL recruit Adnan Farah accepted a plea deal and admitted to conspiring to provide material support for ISIL.
Minneapolis is the site of one of the U.S. Department of Justice’s pilot projects that attempts to counter radicalism by engaging young Somali residents. The initiative has been met with mixed response.
“We’re targeting students,” Jones said. “We know how to reach them through social media and the same way that ISIS is reaching out … [Young people] are always online. We’re always on YouTube, always on Facebook. That’s how they reach people to go over there and fight for them. So if we can reach out to them, we can tell them not to.”
A few weeks ago, the class submitted its creative brief for review to project organizers, and the project will be completed this month. The websites are expected to go live this week.
The P2P: Challenging Extremism Project was started last year and the project is in its third semester. Each college team receives $2,000 and Facebook ad credits to produce a campaign. The top six teams will be awarded scholarship awards from $1,000 to $5,000, facilitated by the State Department and Facebook.
“The most important thing is, yes, we need to enlist tech-savvy youth to push back on extremism … Who better to counter with alternative narratives then the same tech-savvy young people that they want to recruit?” said Tony Sgro, founder and CEO of EdVenture Partners.
Sgro said the program will continue to grow in popularity, “given the state of affairs of the world.”
“I really believe that society needs to look to young people to help solve some of our social problems,” he said.
The anti-terrorism campaign is not the only project that Christensen’s classes are participating in. In an independent study class, students are working on another project sponsored by EdVenture Partners called Building Community Trust, which focuses on building trust between police and high school students.
The students working on the police-related project surveyed local law enforcement and students. They then developed a website with downloadable work sheets to help facilitate police and students meeting and engaging in positive interactions such as playing a game of dodge ball or having lunch together.
“Building trust between positive interactions … they are actually there to build relationships with them,” said Jared Reinitz, 20, one of the students who worked on the project.
Social media is also utilized to share positive stories of police who go above and beyond to help citizens, said Wesley Erickson, 18, a high school senior who is also taking Christensen’s college-level classes.
“All you see on social media is the bad stuff that they do,” he said. “We are trying to promote the good stuff that police do out there.”
The project is mostly targeting police and students in Becker County, Mahnomen County and on the White Earth Indian Reservation.