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Study Explores How Propaganda Recruits Terrorists

Research Aims to Stem the Radicalization of Young People

Assistant Professor Neil Shortland is director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at UMass Lowell Photo by Tory Wesnofske
Neil Shortland, director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at UMass Lowell, will lead a team of faculty that will study how terrorists use propaganda to recruit members and which types of individuals are likely to be swayed by such tactics.

01/23/2018

Contact:
Nancy Cicco, 978-934-4944 or Nancy_Cicco@uml.edu
Christine Gillette, 978-934-2209 or Christine_Gillette@uml.edu


LOWELL, Mass. – How do terrorists use propaganda to entice people to join their ranks? Which personality types are the most influenced by it and what types of messaging are most effective in countering these recruitment campaigns? 

Neil Shortland, director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at UMass Lowell, recently won a $794,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to tackle these issues. 

“No one has done what we’re trying to do: predict behavioral outcomes based on not just the type of propaganda, but also the type of person who is viewing it,” Shortland said.  

The research hopes to stem recruitment of individuals to terrorist cells – particularly young people age 18 to 26, the most targeted demographic. Toward this goal, the study will produce training materials for anti-terrorism professionals so they can better understand radicals’ recruitment techniques and how to counter them, along with educational podcasts and a book for students, teachers and the public on the topic.

Shortland is an assistant professor who teaches in UMass Lowell’s School of Criminology and Justice Studies. A forensic psychologist, he will bring his background to bear on the research. The work will start with models of human behavior that have already been validated and draw on “old-school psychology” Shortland said is needed in a field that spends millions of dollars on campaigns to counter extremism but needs to keep improving to better understand what works.

Joining Shortland on the UMass Lowell research team will be Psychology Prof. Thomas Gordon; Prof. Arie Perliger, who specializes in security studies; and Assistant Prof. Jill Portnoy, a criminologist. Up to 20 UMass Lowell undergraduates will work with the faculty on the project each semester as will students pursuing their master’s and doctoral degrees. 

The team will examine the effects that radicals’ online messages have on people, including which personality characteristics in viewers make them more or less receptive to different types of campaigns, which messages are most effective and the short- and longer-term impacts to people who have been exposed to these types of messages and counter-messages. Psychological traits, including individuals’ sensitivity to threats of punishment and promises of rewards, their levels of hostility and aggression and their predisposition to extremist views will be considered.

To start, the researchers will review psychological studies on advertising and propaganda, personality, radicalization and the effects of video games on individuals who play them. They will use this information to construct research models based on how various personality types are likely to react. They will then gauge how viewing different types of extremist messaging and counter-messaging is received by observing research subjects’ brain activity, heart rate, eye movement and slight changes in facial expression. This data will help the research team determine how subjects react to the information. 


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