College Students Are being Radicalized Online - What Can Be Done?

By Michael J. Martin | July 29, 2023 | 3 min read
Radicalized students

In February of this year, students at Stanford University led an Abolish the Police rally in front of the campus’s department of public safety. In April, a similar protest was led by students at UMass Amherst University. The two rallies are the most recent in a series of protests against campus police.

While protests and activism have a long history on college campuses, some of the calls to defund campus safety aren’t necessarily coming from inside the campus community. Instead, student outrage is being sparked by outsiders using social media to radicalize young people on both the right and the left of the political spectrum. More worrying, campus leaders are giving in to students demands without researching their source.

The online radicalization of kids and teens

Extremist groups, such as the radicals behind the January 6 insurrection have been increasingly targeting kids, teens, and young adults using social media, videos, and gaming platforms to spread their messages. These recruiters tend to hang out where young people gather online; in 2021, The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) found that nearly 1 in 10 gamers between ages 13 and 17 had been exposed to white-supremacist ideology and themes in online multiplayer games.

Many reports are concerned with the violent radicalization of students, but not all radicalization is violent. Some radicalization is designed to whip students into a reactive outrage so that a small minority of students can use that outrage against the school or against the students themselves. In general, there’s been a rash of divisive behavior both online and offline. The result of this has been a growing intolerance of the right to hold opposing views among students.

For example, during a panel at IACLEA this year, Frank Spano of Allied Universal, James Moore, senior advisor for Clery Act Compliance & Campus Safety Operations for the U.S. Department of Education, and Abigail Boyer, Associate Executive Director of Programs Clery Center, discussed a “Cops off Campus” protest that occurred recently.

After an incident with the local city police, one campus saw an online movement to remove its campus safety officers. At that college, however, campus safety provides several highly-valued services, such as counseling, escorting students late at night, and post-incident services. When students were advised that the removal of their campus safety officers would mean the end to these types of services, there was a backlash on the students advocating the removal.

In another case, conservative students were discovered trying to radicalize left wing students so they could then discredit them.

And of course, there have always been campaigns by groups like ISIS or white supremecists that are trying to recruit students to their causes.

What can administrators do?

Combating radicalization often involves communication with the people who care most about the radicalized individuals. In other words, it’s time to get more parents and caregivers involved.

For decades, universities have dealt with students only, wanting to treat them as adults rather than developing adults. Parents have been deliberately left out of the communication loop.

Campus safety officials advocate copying parents and caregivers on important messages, not on direct student issues, but information about what is going on around campus, such as newsletters, bulletins and press releases.

It’s also important that administrators not have a knee-jerk reaction to every protest and movement. While some have merit, others may have their roots in online radicalization. Campus administrators shouldn’t make any changes before determining whether a protest merits action and is truly supported by a large number of students.

Lastly, campus safety officials are encouraging their officers to interact with students on their days off, coming to games or other events. This is a bid to humanize officers with students, but it can put officers - who traditionally avoid campuses on their off-time - in a difficult place. If an off-duty campus officer is at a football game and sees underage drinking, that can cause an uncomfortable situation. For this reason, administrators should only take this approach if they’ve carefully thought about how such situations will be handled.

To learn more about how to secure your campus, contact Circadian Risk to talk to a security expert today.

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