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Colorado Organizations Go Digital To Combat Extremism And Radicalization Online

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Pro-Trump extremists who breached the U.S. Capitol were likely radicalized long before the insurrection on Jan. 6. Conspiracy, misinformation and the echo chamber of social media have all played a role in fueling these high-profile, dangerous events.

The impact of these extreme views isn’t limited to Washington D.C. or in-person meetings. Increasing numbers of people are falling prey to radicalization online known as the “alt-right pipeline.”

Dr. Luke Munn of Western Sydney University describes the pipeline as a system of right and far-right forums, social media posts and videos across multiple sites and platforms. They each nudge individuals to transition to political extremism over time without ever creating a sense they’re taking a major leap.

Colorado has been in the national spotlight for several high-profile shootings in the last decade. That led the Department of Homeland Security to team up with a University of Denver initiative to address hate crimes and extremism in the state.

The Colorado Resilience Collaborative has been working against violence caused by radicalization and discrimination in the state since 2017. Dr. Rachel Nielsen heads the program at the DU. She said the road to extremism often starts with a small problem.

“Bias motivated crimes, ideologically motivated crimes, and even school shooters all have the same trajectory of behavior,” Nielsen said. “They all start out with this personal angst. Then they decide who’s to blame. Then they choose a target and oftentimes they’ll find a human being, a group, some stuff online, or a religious text that backs what they already believe. Then they attack.”

Nielsen said white supremacists have become very savvy at recruitment efforts, navigating digital spaces and using of encrypted websites to meet virtually. While private companies can track user activities, the federal government cannot track that activity until given reason to do so.

According to reports from Moonshot CVE, an international tech startup compiling data on digital extremist content, Colorado has one of the highest rates of extremist content searches per capita in the U.S. COVID-19 has led to increased social isolation and time online, which the CRC said can lead vulnerable people further down the road to violence.

Another organization monitoring local extremist activity and those in danger of radicalization is The Anti-Defamation League. The ADL H.E.A.T. (hate, extremism, anti-semitism and terrorism) map details that there were 179 incidents in Colorado between 2019 and 2020.

Jeremy Shaver, senior associate regional director for the ADL Mountain State Division, said they have been monitoring online chatter ahead of potential armed protests at the Colorado state Capitol.

“It’s important to note, we’re not seeing the same level of threat, and the same level of organizing for these upcoming events as we did with what led up to January 6th,” Shaver said. “If the past is any indication sometimes these things can accelerate quickly. As we get closer we need to continue to monitor and work with partners in law enforcement and the government and others.”

Shaver says part of what’s fueling anti-government and militia groups in Colorado is the changing demographics in the state. Over the last few years, new waves of immigration have become a flashpoint for extremist groups. Their rhetoric online builds on people’s anger and vulnerability around social and political issues.

While programs exist to prevent people from falling prey to digital extremist ideology, it can be difficult to spot in-person. Dr. Nielsen said thinly veiled threats and “jokes” about minorities often go unaddressed out of fear of being accused of overreacting.

For those looking to intervene, the CRC maintains a consultation hotline to help someone on a path to extremist violence. Most calls come from professionals working with youth and young adults, like case managers, therapists and teachers.

On a state level, anti-extremist organizations in the state are pushing for tighter hate crime legislation and improved police tracking for hate crimes. They’re also working with programs like Life After Hate, which facilitates online group therapy for former extremists, to pilot local interventions. Dr. Nielsen said the impact of extremist violence is something all Colordans need to stand against.

“Even if one ideology is one that you don’t care about, you have to fight targeted violence as a whole,” Nielsen said. “Maybe one assault is something that you as a citizen aren’t personally tied to, but the next one is going to be in your backyard. It’s going to have something to do with your family and your children. We can’t pick and choose.”