A group of college students at Mississippi University for Women are working with the Department of Homeland Security to fight terrorism.
But not by going undercover or disabling bombs. Instead, seven students in Assistant Professor Chanley Rainey’s international relations and research classes have formed the organization “Got Peace” as part of a Homeland Security challenge to college students around the country to use social media campaigns to counter terrorist groups and other extremist ideologies online.
It’s part of Homeland Security’s “Peer 2 Peer: Challenging Extremism” program. With terrorist organizations like the Islamic State now pushing their messages to American college students through social media, Homeland Security launched the program inviting college students to counter those messages with their own social media campaigns and report back to the department with what messages and recruiting tactics work.
“It’s hard to understand where the threat is coming from with violent extremism,” said Limbi Banda, a sophomore from Lilongwe, Malawi, who is working on the campaign in Rainey’s international relations class. “It’s not like there’s a 9/11 every day. But … these people are gaining ideas from different outlets, and we have to be able to intercept and create a counter-narrative in that sense.”
The idea of violent groups recruiting students here in the Golden Triangle is very real for the students in Got Peace. In summer 2015, two Mississippi State University students, Jaelyn Young and Muhammad Dakhlalla, were arrested for trying to join the Islamic State in Syria. Rainey’s students were aware of Young and Dakhlalla’s arrest and story, but they broadened their focus from radical Islam to all violent nationalist groups. Their case study was white nationalist Dylan Roof, who in 2015 — at age 21 — shot and killed nine African Americans in a church in Charleston, South Carolina; and his friend Joey Meek, who was just sentenced to more than two years in prison for interfering with the FBI’s investigation of Roof. The students also looked at nationalistic organizations whose members have been linked to violent acts — groups like Stormfront, the White Citizens Council and Vinlanders Social Group.
These groups do everything from starting YouTube channels to hosting concerts, reaching out to people who are still developing their own philosophies and ways of thinking about the world, said junior Subrina Oswalt of West Point, who is in both Rainey’s research and international relations classes.
They also target outsiders — people who feel lonely or misunderstood or people who have anxiety or depression.
“They basically appeal to them saying, ‘Society doesn’t really accept you,'” Oswalt said. “‘You’re depressed … or you have a criminal background and they’re just not going to accept you. But we can provide you with a family and we can provide you with something that society does not.'”
Countering the narrative
With Got Peace, the students want to counter that narrative with a new one: you can be accepted and be proud of your culture without resorting to violence.
“We said that instead of saying, ‘You should not be violent,’ we should be saying, ‘Celebrate the differences you have and embrace others’ culture,'” said freshman Anjila Takhachhen.
Got Peace didn’t just promote this idea through social media, Takhachhen said. They organized events on campus like Fusion Festival, which combined a celebration of Easter and the Nepali New Year. Students stopped by the event to paint Easter eggs and get henna tattoos — intricate designs temporarily applied to hands and arms in some Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures. Takhachhen, who is from Dhulikhel, Nepal, organized the event with friends who used the event to tell other students about Nepali culture.
Then the students pushed it out through social media. Takhachhen put photos of both newly-painted eggs and newly-tattooed hands on the Got Peace Instagram page, while other students pushed the event — and similarly inclusive, multi-cultural events on campus — on Facebook and Twitter.
“There’s nothing wrong with being proud of your culture, and sometimes when you look at other people’s cultures, it makes you embrace your own a little bit more,” Oswalt said.
The students are also putting together a presentation on their campaign to send to Homeland Security, including how many followers the group has garnered since March and what posts and events tended to get people engaged. They’ve also sent out surveys around campus.
“If (students) can get involved, I think they are more willing to participate,” Oswalt said.
But the students in Got Peace want the organization to go beyond just a project for Homeland Security and become part of MUW’s campus culture.
“We’re not really that different,” Oswalt said. “We might have different ideas and we might have different religions and we might have different friends. But we also have things all of us can get around. Most of us have family. We have people that we love. … Most of us are proud of our culture and proud of our families. We just need to understand that other people are proud of that too.”