Developing Herd Immunity to Extremism
Updated: Sep 9
The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that when the majority of a population becomes immune to an infectious disease, it indirectly protects those who are not immune.
This scientific effect, called herd immunity, occurs when approximately 80% of a population is immune. It prevents the disease from spreading widely.
Recently, we held a panel on combating extremism and disinformation during the pandemic with Jesse Morton, a former jihadist propagandist and cofounder of Parallel Networks, Faisal Saeed Mutar, an Iraqi American social entrepreneur and founder of Ideas Beyond Borders, Abdul Aziz Al-Hamza, a Syrian asylee and founder of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, and John Belluomini, founder for the Center for Greater Good.
We found ourselves exploring what the equivalent of herd immunity could be to protect the citizens of our world, particularly in the Middle East, where nearly half of the population is between ages 0 and 24. Basically, how can we, collectively, offer a positive alternative to extremism, authoritarianism, violence, and continual disinformation, so we can empower eager, smart-phone savvy young people looking for change?
There is no one answer, since achieving the herd immunity equivalent will be a multi-pronged effort, but we are outlining the problem and potential solutions via seven important examples.
#1 – Increase Available Content in Arabic – The Arabic language is the sixth most spoken language in the world, yet just 3% of the Internet today is available for 240 million Arabic speakers. Our goal is to increase the wealth and diversity of Arabic content that aligns with the number of people accessing information.
Those who repress, disinform or censor information prefer a lack of positive content, so we think of this solution as achieving herd immunity via broader access to content.
#2 – Teach Critical Thinking vs. Being Critical of Thinking – literacy goes beyond the ability to read. We can provide tools and education to help people think for themselves, to make it easier to define logical fallacies and to understand how to uncover facts vs. conspiracies or misinformation. We don’t want to tell people what to think, but how to think.
Basically, we realize fact checkers are not as important as understanding how to think about facts. It’s a new style of education that is required.
#3 – Empower and Elevate Emerging Voices – we can all provide platforms for emerging leaders to have the floor and gain confidence. Let’s hear from women scientists and engineers. Let’s also share inspiring stories of women who have made a difference in our world. If we are to reach herd immunity, it is a team effort by both men and women of all ages. We have many great examples, such as Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi Arabian women's rights activist, who helped start a women's right to drive campaign in 2011. Manal said in a speech that "the American activist (Rosa Parks) in the civil rights movement best known for her pivotal role in the Montgomery bus boycott" was one of her main inspirations in creating the women driving campaign.
Herd immunity requires thousands of these stories to be heard. Let’s provide more places to listen and learn.
#4 – Teach and Reach Youth in New Platforms, e.g. Gaming – the modification of a popular video game can lead to an opportunity to teach youth how to protect themselves against those who disinform. Imagine if we modified a version of Grand Theft Auto and added transformative narratives, such as those from former extremists or those who have suffered under authoritarianism and extremism (Like Faisal and Aziz) and created a narrative that defines clear heroes and villains and connects to a quest, a broader movement or network established on principles antithetical to hate.
With nearly three billion people gaming in the world today, this is the most important platform for us to reach youth in a fun and educational manner.
#5 – Embrace and Mentor Grassroots Journalism – the next generation of journalists are growing up during decades of war and unrest. This is leading to the rise of citizen-based journalism that helps provide necessary insight into areas of the region that are often hard to reach for a variety of reasons. Rather than be dismissive of the next generation, we should embrace their efforts, teach them journalistic principles and help them narrate life as accurately as one can. We believe current media organizations can serve a mentorship role, in this regard. Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently is a good example of an effort to provide non-partisan and independent news updates. The best journalistic networks will need grassroots partners now and in the future.
#6 – Re-Evaluate How We Deliver Our Messages – when one lives during a time of unrest and/or war, a condition called complex post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) can emerge, which is different than PTSD, often triggered by a single incident. Complex trauma is typically the result of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s), which have been shown to have tremendous impact on future violence victimization and perpetration, and lifelong health and opportunity. Those that suffer from complex PTSD are predisposed to accept extremist narratives.
Messaging, under normal circumstances, is processed by our prefrontal cortex. With complex PTSD, it occurs in the amygdala, which makes us highly susceptible to emotional narratives. Extremists realize that you can start here, then, over time, move towards more rational thinking that occurs in the prefrontal cortex.
And yet counter messaging has often targeted the prefrontal cortex, which does not reach the most vulnerable successfully. The approach to take is clear for future messaging.
#7 – Remember We Can All Change – Jesse Morton was a jihadist who is now dedicating his life’s work to helping people battle extremism. It shows that we are all capable of changing. If Jesse can move away from extremism, we can all move away from our biases and do more to help our friends and colleagues protect themselves day to day. The question is how do we accelerate this type of change?
We believe that unity is power. And unity of approach can lead to an inner power that leads to a new type of herd immunity, which we believe, increases the chance for peace.
Jesse Morton, Faisal Saeed Mutar, Abdul Aziz Al-Hamza, John Belluomini and Bob Pearson