Analysis: A former alt-right true believer wants to use what worked to radicalise and deradicalise him to take on far-right extremism, Marc Daalder reports

Caleb Cain once identified as “a race realist”.

“I believed in the Great Replacement. I would be like, white people built the modern world. White people are the most empathetic people on the planet. White people have higher average IQs than other people.

“I was very concerned about the death of the West. I thought Western civilisation was crumbling and it was going to be taken over by Muslims.”

Now, Cain works at American University on a project that seeks to inoculate people – and particularly students – against far-right radicalisation. In his spare time, he runs a YouTube channel and an online deradicalisation programme.

For the anniversary of March 15, Cain travelled to New Zealand to meet with the Muslim community and discuss his work.

Intense focus on deradicalisation

Cain is not the only person in the realm of countering violent extremism (CVE). Cain knows he’s entered a lucrative territory, particularly after Christchurch.

There are direct links, Cain says, between organisations that set up failed attempts to deradicalise Muslim terrorists after September 11 and those that are now clamouring for national security funding to target the far-right.

“There’s going to be people that come into this space just trying to make money. It’s really unethical and I think it’s a big concern. I think anybody that’s in this space needs to do their due diligence,” he said.

“It’s a hot, new, sexy space, especially after Christchurch. It’s a hot topic. People write books, people make documentaries, people do all sorts of things. Then they get paid.”

March 15 played a major role in that.

“You know, [the August 2017 far-right rally in] Charlottesville was a big shake-up, but I think it’s especially after Christchurch. Before that, the Dylann Roof thing [where a white supremacist killed nine people at a black church in South Carolina] it felt like this isolated event. He wandered into a church with a handgun and shot people. That’s pretty par for the course in terms of shootings, in the United States.

“But [alleged Christchurch gunman Brenton] Tarrant was, that felt like, it almost felt like a jihadi attack. The jihadi attacks were very well planned out and thought out and they’re carried out with such efficiency. He was dressed in gear, he had sophisticated weaponry, he had lots of ammo and of course the filming of it. That contributed heavily. It felt like an international event.

“It felt like it was in my backyard. I’m a person that lives online. When I saw what happened, I was like, that was one of ours. It also clamoured everybody in the space. Everybody’s paying attention to it and it at least got the FBI off their asses.”

After March 15, Cain made a video describing his own path to radicalisation and back out. The video went viral, catapulting him to where he is today.

Understanding radicalisation key

In order to truly understand what would work best to deradicalise young men – and they are nearly always young men – who have fallen down the far-right rabbit hole, Cain says you have to understand what dragged them down that hole in the first place.

In a viral video he made after he deradicalised, Cain called it the alt-right pipeline. Understanding how that pipeline functions is important if you want to design good deradicalisation material, but understanding why it works – why there’s even a willing audience of young men primed for radicalisation – is even more crucial.

“There’s a reason that young men and young people are falling into this. It’s not because they watch propaganda on YouTube. That’s a supply thing, but there’s a demand for that content. It’s not even necessarily that they’re racist, that they’re demanding that content, it’s that they’re searching for something,” Cain said.

“We live in this world where, not to sound like Jordan Peterson, but post-modernism has deconstructed myth, it’s deconstructed social traditions. And it did that for a lot of good reasons – a lot of those things were oppressive – but we never replaced it with anything. There’s no myth anymore. Everybody is just in their own little bubble.

“People used to go to church. That’s gone. People used to have unions. All the unions got busted, that’s gone. People to go out to picnics. Everybody stays inside now, that’s gone.”

Far-right offers a way out

Cain says the far-right, like other extremists, are skilled at capitalising on this social isolation.

“Everybody’s isolated and when they’re isolated, they don’t have purpose, they don’t have meaning, they feel disenfranchised economically – and that’s happening as well – they get online and some far-right figure like Molyneux comes in and says, ‘Hey, you’ve got all these problems’. And they nail the problems, one after another. They say, ‘and here’s why. Here’s the solution. And here’s who causing it,’” he said.

“That’s the same thing jihadis do. That’s how they’re able to radicalise second-generation, rich Muslim kids from the UK. Those kids feel cut off from their community, they feel like they’re not quite English and they’re not quite Muslim. A jihadi comes in and says, ‘I’ve got some meaning and purpose for you and this is why your life sucks. So come join the cause.’

“The same thing that Jordan Peterson has tapped into is the same thing the far-right’s tapped into: telling people that they are personally responsible for their lives and that they can improve their situation. Telling people that they should have meaning in their life and a purpose in their life and then building out a community for those people.”

There can be an alternative to that, however. There’s a way to build a new shared identity around multiculturalism and Cain sees New Zealand’s embrace of Māori and biculturalism – at least compared to how the United States treats ethnic minorities and indigenous people – as a good draft.

“It has to be an identity, a new myth that includes all of us,” he said.

“What the far-right’s selling, essentially, it’s not racism, it’s not ethnostates, what they’re selling is an algorithm. They’re selling a plan. And they have hundreds of years to point back to, to say, ‘Hey, we built Western civilisation and it got us to this point and then the left came in and destroyed it. Now look at your life. Now it’s in chaos. It looks like it’s going to end in 100 years. You’d better get on board right now cause the ship’s sinking and we’re the only ones that’ve got a plan.’”

“So we can’t let them be the only ones with a plan.”

Copying far-right methods

That’s at the root of Cain’s deradicalisation work – an understanding of why he and so many others fell down the alt-right rabbit hole and how to stop up the gap for good.

What worked to deradicalise Caleb Cain might not work for everyone else. That’s why he has modelled his own work not just on what most successfully deradicalised him, but on the methods that radicalised him in the first place.

“I always look to the far-right for inspiration, in terms of media, because they’ve nailed it,” Cain said.

Cain wants to use what he calls inoculation. Jess Berentson-Shaw, who researches the science of communication and is the author of A Matter of Fact: Talking Truth in a Post-Truth World, calls it pre-bunking. Berentson-Shaw was interviewed in November for an analysis of how and why we fall for fake news.

“Pre-bunking is where, before people are exposed to bad information, you can get in there first and let them know that they might hear this information and it will be false,” Berentson-Shaw told Newsroom in November. “That really relies on the ability to get in there first.”

Cain says the far-right are experts at this. “Take Stefan Molyneux for example. He’ll be like, ‘When you go to college, they’re going to force you to take gender studies classes and in those classes you’re going to learn about intersectional feminism. They’re going to tell you it’s about equalising power and helping minorities and raising people up. Really all it is, it’s about cutting you down, so they control you, so they can control all of us. It’s all just a form of manipulation and it’s a lie.’”

“Then they’ll prime you against words like problematic. They prime you against the language, they prime you against the buzzwords like intersectional feminism. By the time you hear that stuff, you have an aversion to it – like you have a physical disgust, aversion. If I was having a conversation with you back then and you said ‘problematic’, everything else you said after that would have been static.”

The Manhattan Project of deradicalisation

Cain wants to see inoculation at the root of any effort to deradicalise people. He’s working with PennState’s Kurt Braddock, who has studied effective communication used to radicalise terrorists and to deradicalise would-be terrorists.

“He’s done work on inoculation in the lab,” Cain said of Braddock. “Basically what he’s done is he sets up a test group and he tells them that they’re going to see some messaging. It could be any sort of messaging, it could be an advertisement, whatever. But there’s a small percentage of a chance that they’re going to get a message from an extremist group and this extremist group is trying to manipulate you, they’re lying to you, and these are the things that they might say to get you to believe what they’re believing.

“And then, of course, they give everyone the extremist message – and they were using the Weather Underground as one of them, there was a jihadi one, there was a white nationalist one. He found that there was a high success rate in that, when people were given the inoculation message, they were more likely to argue against the message that they received, the extremist message. So he’s on our team, he’s going to help us build out the inoculation,” Cain said.

“And then we’re also going to build out the media lab to do counter-messaging, like en masse. That might look like short videos, short stories, documentaries, advertisements.”

In order to get this content in front of the eyes that need to see it, Cain is working with a company that has been tracking traffic on social media and observing how individuals form into groups they label “hate clusters”. The company, which Cain said has asked not to be named yet, says they can target these clusters with social media advertising as they form.

With inoculation content, Cain is hopeful these targeted ads could disrupt the formation of such online groups and prevent people from falling down the rabbit hole. He calls it the “Manhattan Project of counter-messaging and deradicalisation”.

Altering the algorithm

As it stands, social media companies have been widely criticised for the algorithms that provide video recommendations or suggest groups or pages to follow. Researchers have found the algorithms can suggest more and more radical content, radicalising people who may not know why they’re being given certain recommendations.

New York Times review of Cain’s YouTube history, beginning in 2014, found this pattern held true for him. Cain started watching self-help videos to address the isolation he described earlier. Eventually, the recommendations led him to Molyneux, who publishes self-help videos as well as white nationalist content.

Cain sees an opportunity to intentionally alter the algorithm. In the same way the far-right has capitalised on what makes the algorithm tick, deradicalisation efforts could focus on gaming the system.

“I want to build out counter-networks on social media platforms to the far-right,” he said. Cain cites a paper by tech researcher Rebecca Lewis which charted a network of far-right channels on YouTube that fed and grew off one another. 

“She mapped out the far-right and how they network with each other and how that fuels the algorithm. I’d like to do that with counter-messaging. That’s something that [Google’s cybersecurity incubator] Jigsaw’s done, with [anti-extremism group] Moonshot CVE, where Moonshot has taken existing content creators in the realm of jihad and then basically sold ads to people to get them to see that [inoculating] content,” he said.

“That’s really what I’d like to do, is use the algorithm, use the big data, to change everything.”

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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