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Inside the race to develop a vaccine for our other pandemic: Hate

A little-noticed group of government-funded researchers is developing a clever inoculation against the disinformation and violence threatening American democracy.

Cornelia Li for the Boston Globe

The coronavirus vaccine rollout, however chaotic, has been cause for optimism; we can all hope that COVID-19 will soon lose its power.

But it’s hard to be sanguine about the course of our other pandemic: hate. The storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 was a shocking display of extremism’s reach.

And the far right has only ratcheted up the online chatter since, with militants swapping bomb-making recipes and calling for guerrilla warfare against the government.

But accepting the surge in violence, and the disinformation that fuels it, is not an option; together, they amount to the single greatest threat to American democracy since World War II.

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We need to develop another vaccine — a vaccine against hate.

And while that may sound far-fetched, a little-noticed group of government-funded researchers is working on it right now.

The vaccine they’re developing wouldn’t be a typical one. It wouldn’t be loaded into a syringe and squeezed out of a needle. But it would be injected into our digital bloodstream — a clever inoculation against the sickly rage that’s closing in on us from the fringes.

There is reason to be skeptical of its efficacy — reason to doubt that anything, really, can stanch such a virulent disease.

But it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. The early trials, after all, are quite promising.

The birth of an idea

William McGuire
William McGuireCourtesy of the McGuire family

Our story begins about a century ago with an Irish Catholic kid from New York City named William McGuire.

He was born into a blue-collar family; some of his first memories were of accompanying his father, a milkman, on horse-and-wagon deliveries to Harlem.

But he got a jolt of possibility when a priest pulled him aside in high school to scold him for some mischief-making: “McGuire,” he said, “I expect it from them, but not from you.” The priests had given him some sort of intelligence test. And apparently, he’d done quite well.

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After World War II, McGuire went to college on the GI Bill and earned a doctorate in psychology at Yale University. And in the decades that followed, he emerged as one of the world’s leading authorities on the science of persuasion.

He studied not just how to convince others, but how to resist persuasion. And it was here that he made his most enduring mark.

“Inoculation theory,” developed with researcher Demetrios Papageorgis in the 1960s, used medical vaccination as its model.

In laboratory experiments, McGuire presented subjects with truisms like “Everyone should brush his teeth after every meal if at all possible” and “Most forms of mental illness are not contagious.” And then he confronted them with arguments against those truisms.

Strong arguments could shake the beliefs of study participants. But if they faced a weak version of the arguments — akin to a vaccination with a weakened strain of the flu — their defenses went up, they rallied with counterarguments, and they were much less likely to be swayed by these challenges to the truth.

Other researchers quickly latched onto inoculation theory. And over the last 60 years, McGuire’s findings have been replicated in field after field. Psychological vaccines have proved effective in advertising campaigns and political debates, in shoring up attitudes around medical testing on animals and guarding against adolescent smoking.

One insight, developed along the way, is that warning subjects of a coming attack — “People just like you have been vulnerable to the arguments you’re about to hear” — can be especially effective in building up defenses.

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No one, after all, likes to be a sucker.

That was evident in a study that appeared in the journal Nature Human Behavior in 2019. British researchers gave one group of teens a standard message about the importance of a good diet. They told a second group how food companies engage in deceptive marketing and target vulnerable populations.

The second message was the one that resonated.

Boys who heard it bought less junk food in the cafeteria for the remainder of the school year than their counterparts in the control group.

And inoculation is not just the stuff of academic experiment. Business leaders and politicians have successfully deployed it too.

Just last year, Democrat Raphael Warnock ran a textbook inoculation campaign in his bid to unseat Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler.

An outspoken Black pastor, Warnock knew that opponents could pull from decades of spirited sermons to put together devastating, racially charged attack ads. So in the fall, he moved to inoculate voters against the coming assault — using humor to put his audience at ease.

The ad started with mock attacks on Warnock for eating pizza with a knife and fork and hating puppies. “Get ready Georgia, the negative attacks are coming,” he said to the camera. He wouldn’t be deterred, though. He would keep focused on the issues, he said. “And by the way,” he added, cradling an adorable beagle named Alvin, “I lo-o-o-ve puppies.”

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The spot went viral.

Alvin made another set-the-Internet-on-fire appearance when Loeffler and her allies launched the attacks Warnock had warned about. And not long after, Warnock won a surprise victory that helped flip the Senate to Democratic control.

The inoculating beagle, Democratic and Republican strategists agreed, had played no small role.

Inoculating against extremism

Can these same techniques be used to stave off the growing threat of radicalization?

Caleb Cain, for one, doesn’t need much convincing. “I know that inoculation works,” he says, “because the far right inoculated me.”

Cain was a sharp kid. But he had his struggles.

He dropped out of community college after a few semesters and wound up in a dead-end job at a furniture warehouse.

He was frustrated. Angry. And no one seemed to care.

“George Bush is over there blowing up people, Obama ain’t doing jack for anybody,” he says. “The system is completely corrupt. Nobody will listen to me, I can’t go to school, I can’t get health care, I can’t do anything. . . . I can’t even get a frickin’ date, because of how screwed up the society is. And you just start to fester and boil.”

He was looking for answers. For some validation. And he found it on YouTube, where a cast of alt-right outrage kings pinned the blame for his troubles — for the troubles of an entire generation of emasculated young men — on someone else.

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Cain says these online personalities couldn’t move him off some basic ideas he knew to be true; he never succumbed, for instance, to the Holocaust deniers. But they were able to inoculate him against progressive ideas he didn’t know much about — ideas like intersectionality, which highlights the interrelated nature of systems of oppression like racism and misogyny.

“Most people don’t know what the hell that means,” Cain says. “So what they’ll do is say . . . ‘You’re going to go to college and — first of all, what is it with these colleges? These ivory institutions telling you that they know better than you, and you come out of them and you can’t even get a job. . . . But you’re going to go into these classes and . . . and they’ll tell you that intersectionality is about helping minorities and helping women and uplifting everybody. But that’s not what it’s about. They’re liars. What it’s really about . . . is taking away . . . your freedom, your self-respect. They want to tell you that you as a white man, you as a straight white Christian man, are bad, are evil — you’re an oppressor, you’re an inheritor of white supremacy and colonialism and imperialism. You never colonized anybody. You never invaded another country. And when have you ever been racist in your entire life?’”

Then, Cain says, they’ll pile on some clips of the Black nationalist Louis Farrakhan saying outlandish things and “social justice warriors” looking unhinged. “And so now,” he says, “when someone starts talking to you and they say the word ‘intersectionality’ or say they’re intersectionalists, or they use any of the other language that they’ve now inoculated you against, you won’t even listen to that person.”

Cain spent months in that vortex — delighting in the takedowns and the transgressive thrill of a forbidden knowledge. But then something shifted. Left-wing YouTubers started appearing in his feed. And they used snark and spectacle to expose some of his favorite right-wing provocateurs. He pulled free of the agitators and escaped the vortex.

Then, when a shooter steeped in the propaganda he’d once embraced murdered 51 people at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, he posted an emotional video on YouTube about his experience that landed him on the front page of the New York Times and in a podcast called “Rabbit Hole.”

The exposure made him a cautionary tale. But it also gave him a platform.

And just a few days ago, Cain and some collaborators — including a couple of former far-righters — launched an online enterprise at futurefreedom.community that aims to push back against extremism using inoculation, among other methods.

Cain’s familiarity with the term — and with inoculation’s potential — owes much to his work as a program associate at American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab, or PERIL.

The scholars attached to the lab are determined to add scientific rigor to a field where it has been noticeably lacking. Governments all over the world have careened from one strategy for stemming extremism to the next with little attempt to measure effectiveness — and little reason to think that their efforts are working.

Among the most notorious was an American program called “Think Again Turn Away,” launched in 2013, that aimed to dissuade would-be jihadists.

Using a Twitter handle emblazoned with the State Department seal — not the most trustworthy emblem for an audience leery of American messaging — the program got into a string of embarrassing online spats with ISIS sympathizers before it was shut down.

When you’re arguing over how the United States handled the atrocities at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, you’re not winning.

The government, by all accounts, has gotten considerably smarter at countering violent extremism, or CVE, since then — in part by engaging with researchers like Kurt Braddock, a professor of communication at American and faculty fellow at PERIL who is exploring the potential of inoculation theory in this field.

In a 2019 study titled “Vaccinating Against Hate,” Braddock tested the idea on an online panel of American adults skewed toward the under-35 demographic most prone to terrorist recruitment.

Most participants received an inoculation message at the outset of the experiment: They were told that they might encounter a message from a “political extremist group” and that messages from this group had been used to “recruit thousands of people to its cause — people just like you.”

Subjects were then presented with an adapted manifesto from the Weather Underground, a violent left-wing group active in the 1960s and 1970s, or the neo-Nazi National Alliance, with the name of the organization scrubbed from the message. Those who had been inoculated were substantially more likely to argue against the manifesto and to distrust the extremists behind it than a control group that had not been inoculated.

Now the Department of Homeland Security has given Braddock and Georgia State psychology professor John Horgan a $570,000 grant to go a step further — road testing inoculation against new bits of disinformation actually percolating on the Internet.

This summer, Braddock and Horgan will convene an international group of 25 to 30 experts on violent extremism — professors, intelligence officials, and former extremists.

The panel will share predictions on an ongoing basis about what might emerge as the next QAnon, the hoax that attracted millions of adherents with its tales of satanist pedophiles in the upper reaches of power and helped fuel the attack on the Capitol.

Then, aided by Google, the researchers will identify a region of the country where searches for right-wing extremist material run high, use a survey company to screen for people in that region who are open to extremism, and have a narrator deliver an inoculation message to the test subjects via video — followed by a watered-down version of the emerging disinformation.

If the experiment succeeds, Braddock says, the hope is that government or advocacy groups might deploy the strategy at scale — identifying emerging trends and using targeted inoculation to choke off radicalization and violence.

How exactly the inoculation messages would be broadcast is an open question. But Braddock says he could imagine partnerships with big Internet companies that have already shown themselves willing to redirect users interested in extremist content.

One possibility: a 30-second advertisement appearing before a YouTube video — particularly a video edging into disinformation. Braddock says the inoculation would be most effective if it utilized a popular Internet form: a whiteboard explanation of how a particular piece of disinformation works, for instance, or a funny “Daily Show”-style refutation of extremist propaganda.

“Whatever is in the online zeitgeist,” he says.

In time, Braddock says, there may be a way to automate some of the process. He and several collaborators are seeking funding to develop an online tool that would scan social networks for disinformation — likely by identifying key words, sussing out the bots that are often used to spread propaganda, and homing in on the influencers at the center of emerging campaigns.

Offline, he says, inoculation could be part of a broader media literacy curriculum in schools — inoculating students against extremism on both the left and the right to allay any concerns about political favoritism.

And while the aim of this kind of widespread inoculation would be to curb the most worrisome kinds of extremism, it might also have the effect of tamping down some of the broader conspiratorial thinking that’s poisoning American democracy.

The skeptics

Braddock’s inoculation research is attracting substantial interest across the field of countering violent extremism.

“Honestly, it’s at the cutting edge,” says Ross Frenett, co-founder of Moonshot CVE, a tech-savvy research and consulting outfit with offices in London and Washington, D.C.

“If you can prove your 10,000 viewers have a marked decrease in propensity to consume extremist material,” he says, “then all of a sudden that’s something which is rigorous and can scale.”

But there is reason for skepticism. Inoculation campaigns could get lost in the fast-moving stream of online chatter. And extremists will do all they can to mock and marginalize them.

Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty & National Security Program, points to a larger concern. Counter-messaging of any kind is inherently limited, she says, because it doesn’t address the legitimate grievances that underlie so much extremism.

“You can say the political violence at the Capitol was the result of the ‘big lie,’ and there’s definitely a huge amount of that,” she says. “But there are actual political and economic grievances that lead people to Trump.”

That argument gets no quarrel from Braddock. Counter-messaging strategies, however well calibrated, will not suppress violent extremism by themselves, he says.

He also allows that a preventive strategy like inoculation can only do so much to tame a right-wing militancy that’s already gripped a small but substantial share of the American population. An effective approach to de-radicalization is important, too.

One might imagine that inoculation theory would have little to say about rehabilitating extremists. Until recently, it’s been about preventing problems, not curing them. That’s what “inoculation” means.

But an emerging approach with a curious name, “therapeutic inoculation,” has shown promise in a number of other fields — shifting the attitudes of those skeptical of climate science, for instance. And Braddock is intrigued by its potential in the realm of countering violent extremism.

He says he’s not sure exactly what a therapeutic message would look like in practice but “it’s important to communicate to your target that they’ve been tricked, that they’ve been had.”

Braddock wants to round out the idea and apply the sort of rigor he’s insisted upon with standard inoculation. And if he can show it works, “that’s a game changer,” he says.

It will mean that inoculation not only can prevent people from going down the rabbit hole but “can drag them out of the rabbit hole altogether.”


David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.