How do you find empathy for someone whose harmful ideas go against everything you believe? This was one of the central questions driving a team of 13 Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS) students who entered—and won—the Department of Homeland Security’s Invent2Prevent competition in February.
The competition, which began last fall, included 20 university teams from around the country, each challenged with developing “their own dynamic products, tools, or initiatives to prevent targeted violence and terrorism.” The Institute team, under the leadership of Professor Jason Blazakis, was one of three teams to make the final cut.
“We’re very passionate about how technology is influencing our lives, our culture, our society right now,” said Kaitlyn Tierney, a third-semester student in the International Policy and Development program, “so this project was a really great way to put some ideas to the test and work with our fellow classmates on what solutions could look like.”
In considering ways that technology might help cub violence, the MIIS team focused on a particular form of online misogyny exhibited by “incels,” an abbreviation for “involuntary celibate.” Members of the loosely connected incel community are typically young men who hold hostile views toward women and men who are sexually active.
The team’s idea was to use technology to find and divert these men who were on the verge of heading down a dangerous path online. The team created a tool that would operate within Twitter to identify at-risk users and entice them away from hateful “rabbit holes” toward content that would subtly, and without judgment, offer mental health support and resilience-building options. The alternative content lives on the team’s new website titled Diverting Hate. They plan to build on their conceptual framework in the coming year.
Watch the Invent2Prevent team present their project to a panel of judges in the final round of the national competition (begins at 39:58).