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Diné College professor, students research effects of mass shootings with Mason's CINA Center

July 24, 2018   /   by John Hollis

Cognitive psychologist Sara Kien (right) and rising seniors Ashley T. Lee (left) and Tatyanna Begay from Diné College, a Navajo Nation-serving institution from Tsaile, Arizona, took part in a 10-week research project at Mason. Photo by Andrew Brown.

Two students and a professor from the Navajo Nation-serving Diné College in Tsaile, Ariz., are this week completing a 10-week stay at Mason’s Criminal Investigations Network Analysis Center (CINA), where they have pursued cutting-edge research on the public’s response to acts of mass shooting with the goal of stopping copycat/related acts of violence.

Cognitive psychologist Sara Kien and rising seniors Tatyanna Begay and Ashley Lee were selected through a very competitive process to work with the CINA Center as part of the prestigious Summer Research Team Program for Minority Serving Institutions. CINA is a DHS Center of Excellence, and, as part of its mission, it pursues a broad portfolio of research activities related to networked criminal activities.

The Diné College researchers specifically focused on the aftermath of mass shootings, as discourse in social media and other open source forums may affect responses to the event, including potential follow-up acts of violence. Previous studies have shown evidence of a 13-day so-called “contagion” period following a shooting or other act of mass violence in which additional violence is more likely, Kien said, especially in the wake of incidents with substantial media coverage.

Kien, Begay and Lee created coding and analysis protocols to review millions of tweets in the aftermath of the shooting massacre in Las Vegas, Nevada, in October 2017 where 58 people were killed and hundreds of others were wounded, as well in as the aftermath of recent school shootings in Parkland, Fla. (Stoneman Douglas), and Santa Fe, Texas. They wanted to learn how the events were portrayed and how people processed the media coverage.

Begay and Lee said they hoped their work would help limit copycat or related acts of violence.

“My research experience has been analyzing the qualitative data of Twitter to better understand the contagion in social media by categorizing psychological causal attributions, evaluating emotions and closely examining the direction of focus on victims, during the time of and after the events of mass/school shootings,” Begay said. “I have learned to polish my critical thinking and team working skills, which will also prepare me for graduate school.”

“The most impactful skill I've gained throughout my summer participation in research at Mason was enhancing my approach to and ability to think critically about research in the context of mass shootings and the contagion effect,” Lee said. “I improved my research specific skills such as navigating Excel, learning how to program an online research survey and effectively using the qualitative software NVivo, which we have been using extensively for our social media analysis coding of tweets relating to mass/school shooting events.”

Kien, Begay and Lee also completed a study using a modified fictitious mass shooting in which they manipulated information to different subject groups in the hopes of better gauging human reactions. By changing the emphasis of the news from neutral to tilting toward the victims, and then to the shooters, the research team was able to see varied responses to the alleged tragedy. The hope is to understand how those views of media coverage play out with the responses of the general public.

“It’s alarming to see the increase in these kinds of mass shootings, mass killings that are taking place in the U.S.,” Kien said. “I hope that the work we do will ultimately make a difference.”

Both Begay and Lee plan to attend graduate school after graduating next spring with psychology degrees.

In their efforts, Kien and her students have worked closely with researchers affiliated with Mason’s CINA Center. Two members of CINA’s Science committee worked with them: Mary Ellen O’Toole, the former FBI profiler now heading Mason’s Forensic Science Program of the College of Science, and Allison Redlich (and her postdoc researcher Skye Woestehoff), with Mason’s Criminology, Law, and Society Department of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. They also worked closely with Anthony Stefanidis, the director of CINA and the former chair of Mason’s Department of Geography and Geoinformation Science, and his staff.

“They are exceptional people,” Stefanidis said about the Diné College researchers. “They are doing some great work for us.” The work performed and initiated through this effort will lead to a number of forthcoming publications.

Because of Mason’s proximity to Washington, D.C., the students also have been able to visit many national landmarks, including a tour of the FBI Headquarters. They also joined Mason Forensic Science students as extras in an active shooter training exercise conducted by local police departments on the Fairfax Campus.

“Collectively, as a research team, we have seized every opportunity and resource made available to us and, as a result, we are very proud of what we have been able to accomplish this summer,” Lee said.

For more information on Mason’s CINA Center, please visit the center’s website.