| by Caroline Crawford

News Stories

Woroniecki, Joshua
Misogynistic and extreme online content is leading to the radicalization of vulnerable men and fueling an increase in violence toward women. (Credit: @joshua_j_woroniecki from Unsplash )

What started as a collaborative class project has turned into a multiyear professional opportunity, funded by a major Department of Homeland Security Grant, for two Middlebury Institute graduates. 

Diverting Hate is a new and promising solution to the increasing problem of online radicalization—fueled by misogynistic content and deep and dangerous social media “rabbit holes”—of vulnerable men.

International Policy and Development (IPD) alumnae Courtney Cano and Kaitlyn Tierney met last fall in Professor of the Practice Jason Blazakis’s course The Radical Right.

At the beginning of the term, Blazakis introduced the semester’s class project: An entry into a Department of Homeland Security competition, Invent2Prevent. The McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University, one of the competition’s sponsors, calls Invent2Prevent “an innovative, experiential learning program that challenges high school and college students to create and implement their own dynamic products, tools, or initiatives to address acts of targeted violence, hate or terrorism in their specific communities.”

Stepping Up to Fight Misogyny and Gender-Based Violence

Cano MAIPD ’22 and Tierney MAIPD ’22 stepped up as project leads for their 13-person class team. Their entry, “Diverting Hate,” proposed developing a tool that could be widely implemented and used to divert social media users away from violent, misogynistic content and toward content that supported mental health and resiliency. Their team won the $5,000 first prize in the competition, and then in September, in collaboration with Arizona State University, they won a $659,000 Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention Grant from the Department of Homeland Security to continue to build out the initiative.

Tierney, who earned her BA in marketing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, came to the Middlebury Institute to pursue her passion for tech policy and countering violent extremism. Her project colead, Cano, graduated from Middlebury College in 2018 and arrived at the Institute after serving in the Peace Corps in Zambia. They each customized their International Policy and Development master’s degrees to focus on counterterrorism, radicalization, and extremism by adding numerous Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies courses, including The Radical Right, as degree electives.

The goal of Diverting Hate, they say, is to direct young men away from online content that includes hateful rhetoric and misogynistic ideology—content that, at its very worst, can inspire violent acts of terrorism against women.

As a woman, and with many amazing female friends in my life, seeing how violent misogyny is an increasing problem, and how this behavior has been seemingly normalized over the past few years, made me want to do something to address this kind of polarization and extremism.
— Kaitlin Tierney MAIPD ’22

The pathways to radicalization online, particularly in social media, is near and dear to my heart,” says Cano. “My dad, for as long as I could remember, was an active social media user. I witnessed the content he engaged with become increasingly extremist, violent, misogynistic, and on the periphery…. He died a year or so ago—I’m now looking at this issue through the lens of a grieving daughter. This connection is very personal.”

Reaching “Incels” through Technological Tools 

Cano and Tierney cite recent misogynistic terror attacks on women, including the murder of six women in Isla Vista, California, in 2014 and the 2018 shooting in a Tallahassee, Florida, yoga studio that killed two women and injured several others as examples of men, radicalized online, who then commit deadly violence. The Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center released a study this past March that details how attacks by men who call themselves “involuntary celibates” or “incels” have resulted in the deaths of dozens of women in the U.S. and Canada in the past decade.

To reach such men before their online interactions become potentially dangerous, Diverting Hate uses data analysis to examine the language used in extremely misogynistic social media content, and then works backward.

“We’re looking at the frequency with which users are engaging with that kind of content, the accounts they’re following, and we work as far up the ‘engagement funnel’ as possible, trying to divert them to better and healthier content,” says Tierney. They redirect at-risk users toward safer spaces by placing carefully constructed ads that surface on Twitter when dangerous content is accessed. Those ads point users to Diverting Hate’s resource partners, who provide community and mental health support, healthy male influencers, and other helpful content that can lead users down a more positive, constructive pathway instead of what Cano and Tierney call a “rabbit hole of no return.” 

Blazakis has guided his classes in this competition before and he sees Diverting Hate as a standout entry. 

“I was impressed with the creativity of [Cano and Tierney’s] group,” he says. “They developed a tool that can be widely implemented and used to divert audiences from seeing more toxic content online that demonizes women. This tech solution is innovative. I’m proud to see them take what they learned from research and traditional academics and come up with a technical solution.”

Building Out a Network to Counter Extremism

While Diverting Hate is taking root, so are Cano and Tierney’s careers. Cano completed her master’s in May and is now a senior associate at the Cornerstone Government Affairs, a bipartisan public affairs firm in Washington, D.C. Tierney, who will graduate in December, is working at Limbik, a tech firm, as a mis-, dis-, malinformation (MDM) content analyst. But they are both also staying fully immersed in Diverting Hate and the possibilities that this grant funding will allow.

Their current team includes Diverting Hate cofounders Astrid Askenberger MANPTS ’23 and Myles Flores MANPTS ’22, who were part of their initial project team in the Radical Right class, graduate research assistants Libby Flatoff NPTS ‘23 and Morgan Fowle NPTS ‘23, and two Middlebury College research assistants, Ishaani Sharma ’25 and Zeke Hooper ’25, who are supporting their database development and network analysis on Twitter. The McCain Institute is working closely with the Diverting Hate team to guide them in how best to work with a government grant, build out their network, and connect to others in the field. 

Two years from now, Cano and Tierney say, they expect to see this initiative still thriving, while they continue to build out partnerships with different organizations that are interested in countering misogyny and extremism. 

Behind all this effort, they say, is empathy: a deep desire to address the forces at play in our society, including isolation and a lack of mental health resources, that make men vulnerable to radicalization. Ultimately, says Tierney, Diverting Hate’s aim is to “work with anything from [social media] platforms to academics to partners to ensure that those who are victims [of misogyny] can be safe, and those who are in need of support can get the support they need.” 

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