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As social media continues to infiltrate our everyday lives with new ways of connecting and obtaining information, extremist groups such as ISIS are taking advantage of its ease of use and far-reaching implications to spread their message and recruit new members.
In the wake of this disturbing trend, students in Arizona State University professor Steven Corman’s Countering Violent Extremism class, in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, are banding together to counteract the proliferation of cyber-terrorism with a social-media campaign of their own.
The campaign is part of the Peer 2 Peer: Challenging Extremism program, an initiative of the U.S. Department of State and Edventure Partners, a private organization that works to build academic partnerships between higher education and companies, trade associations, government and nation clients to give students and professors the chance to work together to solve real-world problems.
The program aims to empower university students from 23 schools in the United States, Canada, North Africa, Middle East, Europe, Australia and Asia to develop digital content that counters violent extremist messaging through a semester course for academic credit.
According to the ASU team’s director of communications, senior Aaron Masengale, “Islamophobia is a more pressing issue for students” because the propaganda of extremist groups is often targeted directly at impressionable youth – the peers of students participating in Peer 2 Peer.
“[Those students] are also the best equipped to deal with it,” he said, because of their digital proficiency.
ASU was chosen to participate in the program because of previous work with Edventure Partners and, according to Edventure chief executive officer Tony Sgro, “a specific request was made by the National Counterterrorism Center and its leadership to reach out to ASU because of the strength and reputation of the program professor Corman manages."
"Within the countering violent extremism ‘industry,’ " Sgro said, "ASU has a very good reputation.”
Alyssa Sims, business and global politics major and project manager for the team of ASU students, said their first step was determining what the catalyst is that turns someone into a violent extremist. The team found that in the case of foreign fighters, American Muslims or American Muslim converts who go oversees to join extremist groups, many feel a sense of isolation and a lack of connection to their Muslim community.
“So we started thinking, ‘How do we combat that?’ ” Sims said.
The team came up with the idea for a website that would allow Muslim community members to better connect. But they didn’t want to alienate the community by over-moderating the site or “telling their story for them,” Sims said. “So we thought, maybe our role is to let this group tell their own story.”
“We want to use this as an opportunity not only to counter Islamophobia, but to preach what we are really about,” said team member Saadh Monawar, himself a Muslim.
The result? Yoummah.org: a website distinctive in that it consolidates several tools, such as fundraising and event planning, where the Muslim community has the ability to get the word out about ways people are connecting and contributing positively to society.
Yoummah is a combination of the English word “you” and the Arabic word “ummah,” which means “community.” The significance of combining the two is the emphasis it puts on the individual’s role in his or her community, according to the team.
The site officially launched April 9 and, though there is a focus on connecting the local Muslim community, it is open to everyone. Users can register for free to post events that they can add photos to, raise funds for or even request specific roles, such as treasurer or project manager, to be filled. Other members can view upcoming events and, if interested, sign up to fill those roles, provide supplies or contribute to the fundraising.
The site is also accessible through other social-media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+, and the team hopes to eventually develop it into an app and take it global.
For Monawar, what surprised him most throughout the project was “that I was able to personally get involved in something that directly affects my community and that could support my future goals in a real, measurable way.”
The Peer 2 Peer program will culminate in a final competition June 4 in Washington, D.C., where three teams of finalists will present their project’s creative briefs to a roster of judges. Their projects will be judged on predetermined metrics, which, for the ASU team, include how many people actually use Yoummah.org and how often the site is mentioned on other sites – for example, through Facebook “likes” or Twitter retweets or hashtags.
The importance of the site's effectiveness is evident when speaking with the team members, who are also utilizing focus groups and speaking with Muslim groups on campus to get feedback.
“We want to make sure the site is helping the people who need it, and actually making a difference,” Sims said.
Professor Corman praised the team's progress.
“The students in the class have done an excellent job of taking a difficult problem and a challenging timeline, and creating a product that their target audience seems excited about,” he said.
Monawar is enthusiastic about the team’s chances of making it to the finals in Washington, D.C.
“I really feel confident we have a product that’s relevant and that works. We know it will work,” he said.
The Hugh Downs School of Human Communication is part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.