U.S. Department of Homeland Security Backs Eagle Plan to Combat Violence-Provoking Effects of Disinformation

By Michaela Jarvis

In an age when disinformation can promote violence, a group of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University faculty will help secondary school teachers to recognize the online manipulation tactics used by extremist organizations, using an approach known as Inoculation Theory.

“Inoculation Theory is the idea that a little bit of exposure to something dangerous will make you more resilient when confronted with something more dangerous in the future,” said Dr. Diane Maye Zorri, assistant professor in the Department of Security Studies and International Affairs, adding that she first learned about the approach from assistant professor Dr. Daniel Gressang, who has spent most of his career at the National Security Agency. “We would like to expose people to the various ways that foreign actors and malicious entities are spreading disinformation, faulty statistics, conspiracy theories and false narratives.”

The program, which will bring the approach to Volusia County Schools’ “Volusia Learns!” 2022 summer professional learning conference, was recently awarded $232,700 by the Department of Homeland Security’s Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention Grant Program.

“The project aims to prevent violent organizations from recruiting and mobilizing people,” said Zorri, who is the project’s principal investigator. “The Department of Homeland Security is looking for innovative solutions that can be done at the local level. … I thought this was something that paired well with the expertise of the Security Studies and International Affairs department, as well as faculty members from the Humanities and Communication and Math departments.”

Dr. Karen Gaines, dean of Embry-Riddle’s College of Arts & Sciences, stressed the importance of such work.

“This project will not only help prevent violent organizations from recruiting and mobilizing young people but will also nudge those vulnerable individuals to more productive life outcomes,” Gaines said. “The fact that we can do this here in Volusia County to help our community gives me great pride.”

As an example of an extremist ideology that is popular in social media groups, Zorri mentioned “sovereign citizens,” which asserts that the U.S. government and federal law enforcement are illegitimate.

“The jargon and pseudo-legal rationale and statistics perpetuated by this group are very persuasive and have successfully mobilized many people,” Zorri said, noting that the movement has led to deadly confrontations with law enforcement.

The program will give teachers tools and exercises for instructing young people about the dangers of such manipulation.

“The good news is that most extremist violence is not perpetuated by secondary school students,” said Zorri. “But this is where Inoculation Theory comes into play. By inoculating students early, the theory suggests they will be less susceptible to radicalization in the future.”