We need whole-of-society evidence-based approaches to address hate against minorities

The Christchurch terror attack conducted by Brenton Tarrant highlights the need to create policies to better understand and prevent hate.

As I have written in a blog post on the AVERT website, we need new media ethics protocols for media, journalists and tech companies, combined with better education for private social media users. You can read my blog post here.

At the same time, we need to develop national capacities to plan prevention, reduction and policing strategies. The ability of Australian state and federal governments to create policies to address hate against minorities is limited by the lack of data about the nature, incidence and trends of the phenomenon. As I explain in this article, it is imperative to foster a shared culture among all stakeholders of hate prevention, more oriented towards research evidence. The creation of an an integrated database containing de-identified data about hate against all minorities, and the development of a new victimization survey focused on the multifaceted expressions of hate against minorities, can allow us to understand the phenomenon and develop better policies to address it.

You can find some of my commentaries and media engagements in Italian language as well, here and here.

The impact of the Cronulla Riots on the evolution of the Australian far-right

White supremacists used to be a violent and isolated racist and anti-Semitic political vanguard. In recent years, we have seen former neo-nazis moving towards the political mainstream and forging alliances with activists from Black, Asian and Jewish backgrounds in the name of anti-Muslim agenda.

This does not mean that anti-Semitism disappeared from the radar: far-right groups still target Jewish communities, which often do not overwhelmingly support activists that ally with former neo-nazis. However, the identity of the Australian far-right has somehow changed, as also suggested by previous research on this topic.

Ana-Maria Bliuc, John Betts, Muhammad Iqbal, Kevin Dunn and I have just published an article where we study how and why the Australian far-right changed its political focus and identity.

We examine over 14 years of online communication between members of Stormfront Downunder, the Australian sub-forum of the global white supremacist community Stormfront.org. We analyse members’ language use and discourse before and after the 2005 Cronulla Riots.

Our study finds that the riots were associated with significant changes in the collective beliefs, emotions and consensus within the community, reinvigorating a sense of purpose with a stronger anti-Muslim agenda. For example,  we find that after the Cronulla riots the use of words like “Islam”, “Muslim”, “Lebanese” sharply increases, together with words like “immigration”, “multiculturalism” and “culture”, and words related to violence such as “bash”, “violence” and swear words.

The mainstreaming of far-right movements and their shift towards anti-Islamic agenda is a global phenomenon. Our study finds evidence that the 2005 Cronulla Riots played a major role in triggering this process in the Australian context.

Our article has been accepted for publication in the journal New Media & Society. You can read the article pre-prints here.

Why do people engage in political violence and terrorism? New systematic review of the scientific knowledge

The reasons why people participate in political violence and terrorism remain a matter of contention. Scientific research has increasingly focused on this issue, but there is a lack of understanding of the overall findings of this body of research. One of the unexplored areas is the literature that used the notions of “radicalisation” and “extremism”. Probably the main obstacle to conducting systematic reviews of this body of research is the ambiguity of key terms such as “radicalisation” and “extremism”, which by their very nature identify a relative position on a continuum of opinions and behaviours. Some scholars even deny that radicalisation exists.

In a recent study that I co-authored with Ekin Ilbahar, Muhammad Iqbal and Greg Barton, we select and categorize all scholarly, peer-reviewed, English-language articles published between 2001 and 2015 that empirically investigated the factors of “radicalisation” into violent “extremism”.

This review findings suggests that radicalisation, in its fundamental mechanisms, so far as recent scholarly literature in English is a guide, is a cross-ideological and global process that entails similar fundamental categories of factors: 1- a political or social grievance (“push” factor), 2- a reward or appeal of violent extremism (“pull” factor) and 3- a personal vulnerability or predisposition (“personal” factor).

We also find important geographical and other differences in the frequency of the factors within the larger aggregate categories of “push”, “pull” and “personal” factors. In other words, the causes of radicalisation may differ in different contexts, even though the categories of factors are recurring.

Although the methods used in this field are getting more rigorous over time, there are still unanswered questions about the causal relations between factors and outcomes. For example, there is no definitive answer to the question whether the adoption of an extreme ideology precedes engagement in violence or it follows it. Moreover, certain push factors (such as poverty) and personal factors (such as demographic characteristics and personality traits) certainly precede radicalisation because of their nature, but others (such as the development of a mental disorder) might, at least in some cases, also follow or develop alongside radicalisation, being, in part, caused by it.

We propose that future research should aim to understand the interaction between push, pull and personal factors for both cognitive and behavioural radicalisation, and the specific conditions that develop the emergence of different types of those factors in certain contexts. A number of very important questions remain to be addressed. For example: do all push, personal factors have the same effect on the radicalisation process? What is the specific combination of personal, push and pull factors that triggers radicalisation in a specific context? Are there any differences in the push, pull and personal factors that predict cognitive and behavioural radicalisation? What factors are more important to identify the move to action?

We believe that these represent some of the most important questions that disciplined and theoretically informed empirical research should focus on, to move this field of scientific inquiry forward.

Book launch: How is Terrorism Changing Us?

If you are in Melbourne and interested in this topic, don’t miss the launch of my book How is Terrorism Changing Us?

For a description of the book content see here.


Please register here to attend the book launch: http://verganibooklaunch.eventbrite.com.au

WHOProf Kevin Dunn will launch the book

WHEN – Monday 3 September 2018, from 5pm to 6:30pm

WHERE – Deakin University, Burwood Corporate Centre, 221 Burwood Highway

HOW – Informal, drinks and canapes


The book launch is part of the program of the AVERT Research Network Symposium on “the politics and ethics of conducting research on violent extremism and terrorism”. Please register here to attend the AVERT Symposium: https://www.avert.net.au/avert-symposium-2018


Book Launch Flyer_v2

How is terrorism changing us?

In my recently published book (2018, Palgrave MacMillan), I try to answer the question: How is terrorism changing us?

To provide an evidence-based answer, I analyse large public opinion datasets from Europe, United States and Australia, and I present the results of five original experimental studies conducted in Europe and Australia.

The results suggest that an exaggerated perception of terrorism threat can push democracy to its limits for the following reasons:

  • It can increase support for draconian policies and anti-system attitudes.

Not only centre-right but also centre-left voters are ready to support illiberal policies against minorities and sacrifice civil liberties in the name of security when they perceive high levels of terrorism threat. Higher threat perception is consistently associated with anti-establishment attitudes (such as Euroscepticism) and populist political preferences (such as supporting Donald Trump).

  • It can exacerbate the differences between ideological and religious groups.

The perceived threat of terrorism pushes religious and political identities away from each other. Left-wing people tend to dismiss the threat of terrorism, right wing people tend to see it as the main threat to their nations. Higher perception of jihadist terrorism threat makes people cling to their religious identities, and see members of other religions (especially Muslims) as out-groups. As a consequence, people tend to diminish trust for members of other ideological and religious groups.

  • It erodes trust between immigrants and host societies in multicultural democracies.

Large segments of the society, when under stress, project their anxieties onto certain communities that are regarded as threatening and deviant. The perception of terrorism threat is consistently associated with negative views of immigrants and support policies that reduce the civil liberties and rights of immigrants.

What can we do to counter the negative effects of the perceived threat of terrorism?

The solution should be holistic. I argue the main ingredient is trust, specifically:

  • trust in democratic institutions, which needs to be addressed by resolving underlying issues such as injustices, inequalities, inclusiveness, fairness among others;
  • trust in minorities and other out-groups, especially through education and knowledge in the formal system and in other contexts such as community projects;
  • trust in the media, which can be established through increasing media literacy, the establishment of a code of terrorism news reporting and more emphasis on accurate and evidence-based information.

Bringing about change is not someone else’s responsibility: this is a cultural change that can only start from us.


How do we reduce Islamophobia and prejudice against Muslims in Australia? New research evidence

Policy makers struggle to understand how to strengthen social cohesion and reduce prejudice and Islamophobia. In our latest article, Professor Fethi Mansouri and I provide critical evidence to inform policy directions in the diversity governance space.

Research in the field of social psychology has explored prejudice reduction mechanisms and interventions for decades. Our article expanded this line of research by exploring the relationships between self-reported knowledge (that is, what people think to know about Islam), factual knowledge (that is, what people actually know about Islam) and contact (that is, how many Muslim people they know).

Our study finds that knowing more about Islam, and knowing more Muslims, is linked to less prejudice against Muslims. However, people who think to know Islam, but do not know any Muslim and do not have correct information about Islam, are the ones who have more prejudice. Even when they have high level of formal education.

This evidence suggests that promoting correct knowledge about Islam could diminish the barriers that prevent people to accept meaningful interactions with Muslims, which in turn contributes to reducing prejudice.

To conclude: beware of those who say that they know a lot about Islam and who display high level of prejudice against Muslims: there is a very high chance that their actual knowledge of Islam is highly inaccurate!


Does fear of death make people more extremist? New evidence published in the journal Political Psychology

Why do people engage in terrorism? There are a lot of opinions about it, and only a comparatively small number of empirical studies. Terror Management Theory is one of the few theories that has the potential to shed light on this issue and provide a basis for informed policy responses.

In a nutshell, Terror Management Theory posits that when people are reminded of death (for example, when they experience the loss of a loved one, or for example when they live in war-torn countries), they will employ, if unconsciously, a range of behaviours and cognitions that act to psychologically buffer them from death anxiety. A handful of empirical studies found that reminding people of death increased support for racism, martyrdom and sacrifice to protect one’s country. Based on these studies, many scholars have argued that thoughts of death, even when evoked by death-related images on TV and the internet, can lead to increased political aggression and support for extremist views.

However, in this article just published in Political Psychology, we find that reminding people of death can increase people’s support for foreign military intervention for combating violent extremism, but it cannot increase the support for violent extremism among non-extremist samples. We argue that future research needs to overcome methodological and theoretical limitations before evidence arising from TMT can be usefully relied upon to inform efforts to reduce radicalization, extremism, and terrorism.

The article is largely based on my PhD thesis, and it was co-authored with Kerry S. O’Brien, Peter Lentini and Greg Barton.