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Virginia Tech expert: Most people fall into violent extremism by accident

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Recent examples of domestic violent extremism demonstrate that everyday individuals, such as neighbors, family, and friends, can believe in such ideologies without much prompting or coaxing, according to Virginia Tech sociologist Ashley Reichelmann.

“The Internet has provided a haven for validating one’s views and offers an echo chamber,” said Reichelmann, an assistant professor of sociology, and associate director of the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention at Virginia Tech.

Her research focuses on racial prejudice and white extremism.

“Recent research also reveals that most people fall into this information by accident. They are not necessarily looking for it, but rather click down a rabbit hole, link after link. Or it is shared with them by friends,” Reichelmann said.

“While we often blame individuals for ‘falling victim’ to conspiracy theories, we rarely discuss the lack of structural forces that could slow their spread and inform individuals of the factual validity of what they are viewing” she said.  “Given the increasing amount of exposure both younger and older folks have on the Internet, there is a pressing need to educate ourselves on how to become critical consumers of both information on the Internet and general discourse around us.”

New federal efforts are aimed at preventing the spread of the disinformation to those who may be vulnerable or lack the skills to recognize it and argue against it.

“While groupthink does not explain how individuals come to believe such ideas, it could explain how they can remain captivated with little to no ability to reflect on the ideas’ plausibility or lack of evidence.”

Last fall, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified that domestic terrorism cases are on the rise and that racially motivated extremists are the biggest part of that, particularly those with white supremacist ideologies.

Reichelmann believes that “in order to more fully understand how extremist forces relate to race and racial animosity, we would need to step back and consider socio-historical changes that have resulted in a feeling of lost community, a lack of discussion about the historical facts of how the country arrived at its current state and the evolving narrative about racial identity in the United States.”


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