Douglas Wilbur ’14, a visiting doctorate. researcher at UTSA’s Department of Communication, published a study that shows how researchers can create messaging campaigns to protect individuals from adopting extremist views.
According to his research, when people are explicitly told that they are free to accept or reject propaganda claims, the likelihood of choosing a moderate view increases. This was the result of an attitude survey that tested counter-propaganda strategies, which emphasized a person’s autonomy, and then measured feelings after exposure.
The study was recently published in Social influence with collaborators from the University of Missouri.
“It’s ironic, if you think about it. Allowing individuals to make choices when encountering extremist messages seems to help people resist such claims,” Wilbur said. “What this research has shown is consistent with other results. You tend to see a trend where people will make the right choice.”
The Pew Research Center found that two in three Americans say social media has a negative impact on what happens in the United States. The main reasons listed in the same survey were misinformation and hate speech.
To combat propaganda in the past, strategists have relied on the theory of attitude inoculation. Similar to how physical vaccines inoculate people against a virus, communication messages use psychological inoculation through exposure to both negative messages and techniques to resist such attacks. As a result, people train and build up their psychological immunity to resist future attempts at persuasion. The downside to this approach, however, is that it is difficult to apply to large groups.
With this limitation in mind, Wilbur tested two counter-propaganda strategies to strengthen peoples’ resistance to extremist propaganda. One is based on the Self-Determination Theory, or DPT, which argues that people are curious, active, and strive for health as long as their psychological needs are met. Primarily, in this approach, the individual needs power and control over their actions. Likewise, the other strategy tested relies on psychological reactance theory, or PRT, which assumes that people have strong negative reactions when they feel their freedom is threatened.
Wilbur recruited nearly 400 participants online and told them they would read extremist posts. Respondents were randomly assigned to a neutral control condition, a DPT approach (“it’s your choice to agree or not”) or the PRT condition (“don’t let them manipulate you”). . They then read and noted their agreement on two extremist anti-immigrant messages. After exposure, both campaigns produced less agreement with extremist messages over the condition of control – regardless of political affiliation.
Wilbur explained that the advantages of these agency-based campaigns are that they can be designed in advance and are not message specific. These proactive strategies and the benefits that flow from them deviate from previous approaches Wilbur himself used during his military tour of Afghanistan. There he served as a communications officer and was tasked with blocking al Qaeda’s recruiting efforts, but the existing communications methods at his disposal were slow and responsive.
“Al-Qaeda would broadcast a video to recruit. Then it would have to be discredited, but it would take time to get a counter-product (opposed argument via brochures or videos),” Wilbur recalled.
Its approach aims to disrupt the process of radicalization among vulnerable population groups.
“If we could make people think they have autonomy, then yes, they would be more likely to resist propaganda messages,” Wilbur said. “We can even create messages about the COVID-19 vaccine – campaigns that tell people they can choose whether or not to take the vaccine. You want to insist on freedom.”