The Preventing Violent Extremism Project

Graduate students’ Preventing Violent Extremism project both educates and engages

By Suzanne Bowness

One of the tragedies of violent extremism is that we often only realize it at a point of horrific conclusion. We read with shock about the extremist views of Alexandre Bissonnette, accused of the massacre at a Quebec City mosque, and wish that something could have been done. Starting February 14, a handful of Carleton’s graduate students took on the challenge of raising awareness with a new “60 Days of PVE” (Preventing Violent Extremism) Facebook campaign, a project that emerged from a capstone course taught by Carleton professor Alex Wilner in the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

The Facebook campaign, and its companion website The PVE Project provides articles and resources on the topic, including a deeper definition of terms like PVE and radicalization, testimonials from voices in the community, a quiz for visitors to test their knowledge of PVE, and a resources section with links to other websites and support groups. The Facebook page, which is the sole project for the class and is also an entry in the Peer to Peer: Facebook Global Digital Challenge, already has over 900 “likes”.

Connecting with the Community

Kirsten Aleksejev and Éliane Goulet-Beaudry are two of the ten graduate and post-graduate students who spearheaded the project. Both master’s students (Aleksejev is also a law student) say they saw the project as a practical way to connect with their community about a very timely issue. “There’s a lot of academic literature on PVE and radicalization, but to actually bridge that into a project and really engage with the material beyond just reading articles is what drew me to the project,” says Aleksejev.

Goals for the project included getting people to think critically online, correcting misinformation about terrorism and radicalization, and establish their site as a credible and positive voice on the issue by providing facts and information grounded in well-founded sources. “We wanted to make a campaign that would empower people to think critically about what they were reading online,” says Aleksejev. “We wanted to counter the narrative of negativity and violence that we were coming across online and instead replace that with a narrative of inclusion where people feel like they have resources.”

Common misconceptions that the team is trying to counter include the notion that radicalization happens quickly, that all radicalization is religiously motivated, and that there’s nothing the average person can do.  One of the most important things that the team sees itself doing is connecting visitors to local, grassroots resources that can help and support people who may be becoming radicalized.

An Open Dialogue

“It’s really important to keep a dialogue open. If somebody has a different way of seeing things or has extremist views, encourage them to discuss, and challenge those ideas to keep the dialogue open,” says Goulet-Beaudry. She adds that friends and family of those individuals should know that there is help. “We have a section in our website people can turn to if they see any of those signs in people around them.”

Both students are pleased that the site has gotten attention even beyond their community, and say they hope future students will continue the project after the course ends. They say it’s been a great learning experience about how to organize effectively on social media, but even more so in terms of realizing that it’s possible to influence a dialogue.

“I’ve learned that for every negative comment I see on Facebook, that there are so many other positive ways to look at the world. I think that from engaging with the community throughout this project, inclusion and belonging is actually so much stronger than the fear and negativity we see online,” says Aleksejev.