University Scholars from George Mason University explored the issues around online radicalization as part of the annual University Scholars Institute, a week-long in-depth seminar into a topic chosen by rising sophomores in the program.
The week before the fall semester began, University Scholars heard multidisciplinary academic and practitioner perspectives related to “Understanding Online Radicalization in Multiple Contexts,” including the origins of political polarization, as well as conspiracy theories and what allows them to take hold.
“The topic of online radicalization can be approached from so many directions: sociological, technological, criminal, legal, domestic, international, psychological,” said Eva Bramesco, undergraduate admissions associate director and University Scholars Program director.
The institute is traditionally held for sophomores as a special educational experience but was cancelled last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Juniors were included in the program this year so they got a chance to experience the annual institute, Bramesco said.
“It was refreshing to be back in real space with one another, and the students were able to jump right into group collaboration,” she said.
Participating students worked in teams to identify a challenge or question related to online radicalization, and then come up with an approach or intervention that they presented at the end of the week.
“I really didn’t expect to learn as much as I did,” said Taurus Patterson, a sophomore University Scholar concentrating in finance and accounting. “The topics we discussed were fascinating and also sad.”
“I learned how it doesn’t help to tell someone that their views are ridiculous,” he added. “Instead, you need to talk to someone who is caught up in conspiracy theories by focusing on how their actions are hurting the people they love.”
Some presentations focused on QAnon conspiracy theories, the media strategy of ISIS, online news consumption and conflict resolution after the pandemic.
“I didn’t really understand the extent of QAnon and how it has seeped into the fabric of society,” said Hope Berns, a junior University Scholar pursuing a double major in conflict analysis and resolution and religious studies. “All of the topics we discussed are so relevant to the current state of American society and how split we are right now into factions.”
Each year since 1989, Mason has recognized about 20 incoming students with four-year, full-tuition scholarships as part of the University Scholars Program, run through the Honors College. The students are generally a diverse and multidisciplinary group who have demonstrated excellence in intellectual vision and creativity, an ability to solve problems and overcome obstacles, and a commitment to contributing to their community, according to the website.
University Scholars also receive four years of enhanced mentoring and participate in co-curricular experiences designed to help them develop as researchers, leaders and citizens.