Against online radicalisation: the EU-funded project PRECOBIAS

Online radicalisation is an increasingly widespread phenomenon. This is how the European project PRECOBIAS reached almost 4 million young people to building up their resilience against radicalising discourses.

The impact on society of misinterpreting information found online, especially from unreliable sources, has never been more evident than in the last few years with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Conspiracy theories, rejection of official sources, anti-scientific approaches and the spread of fake news have led to a substantial radicalisation of public opinion with the creation of extremist fringes, sometimes even violent ones.

And it is precisely with the aim of preventing online radicalisation, through understanding those mental mechanisms that lead to a distorted assessment of the information one comes across, that the PRECOBIAS (PREventing COgnitive BIASes) project was funded in 2019 and is now in its final phase.

The international partnership of PRECOBIAS, led by P.M.F. S.r.l. of Catania, includes the prestigious Universities of Ghent and Ludwig Maximilian of Munich, whose researchers have conducted studies on the communication methods used online by extremist groups to identify the ‘gaps’ in our thinking that such discourse tends to exploit.

Thus, in the project’s ecosystem, the concepts of ‘automatic thinking‘ and ‘cognitive bias‘ are of central importance; in both cases, these are mental shortcuts that our brains exploit to cope with the scarcity of available cognitive resources in the face of a potentially unlimited amount of stimuli to be processed. Basically, under certain conditions, certain steps in the information processing process are skipped at an unconscious level, leading us to form ideas and make decisions that are not based on rational grounds.

Starting from this research, which resulted in three scientific publications freely available here, the project partnership, composed not only of the above-mentioned universities, but also of organisations from Slovakia (Human Rights Institute), Hungary (Subjective Values Foundation) and Poland (Institute of Social Safety), has developed resources for a very varied audience (teachers, students, social workers, organisations active in the field of counter-radicalisation, etc.).

Particularly relevant is the free open online course which, in about 12 hours, through a mix of videos, quizzes and readings, provides an overview of the issues of online radicalisation and cognitive prejudices.

Upon completion of the course and passing the final exam, users receive a certificate of completion issued by the Universities of Ghent and Munich.

Schools and social organisations can be a very important bulwark against misinformation and radicalisation, which is why other resources developed by the PRECOBIAS partnership were two manuals (one specifically addressed to teachers and another to social workers). In addition to basic notions related to the thematic areas of the project, the texts include practical, ready-to-use activities to be carried out in class or in groups, aimed at strengthening the critical spirit of young participants. Such manuals, available in English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Slovak, Hungarian and Polish, have now received almost 20 thousands downloads.

The centrality of relations with the latter categories is underlined by the training day organised by the partnership in Brussels on 22 October.

The event was an opportunity for several organisations active in social work and against radicalisation to get in touch with a cognitive approach to this issue and to discover multiple activities that can be carried out in their daily work with young people.

The focus of PRECOBIAS, however, was on young people, who are the favourite target group of online radicalisation campaigns. For this very reason, project’s partners put a lot of effort into the realisation of a social media campaign focused on awareness of cognitive bias, aimed precisely at young people.

A variety of resources were used to run this campaign, with the aim of conveying the message in the most accessible way to the target audience, replicating the style and communication methods of the content they usually use on social networks.

Thus, animated videos with an ironic tone, an online self-assessment test and a thematic contest were created on Instagram.

The campaign, which is now concluded, was a great success: almost 4 million young people were reached, the test was completed almost 19,000 times and the videos were viewed a total of more than 350,000 times. In addition, more than 1,000 participants contributed with their creations to the project’s contest.

One of the essential messages of PRECOBIAS, however, is that automatic thinking and the unconscious creation of biased thoughts are part of human nature. No one is really exempt, regardless of age, education or social status. Being more aware of these processes and taking some precautions is the only partial remedy.

It is precisely for this reason, therefore, that the PRECOBIAS resources are of interest and easy to use not only for professional groups dealing with the topic, but also for a wider public.

If you want to know more visit the project’s website and follow it on Facebook and Twitter.