What makes a person vulnerable to radicalization?


Flowers and candles lay outside the scene of a shooting at a supermarket, in Buffalo, N.Y., Sunday, May 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

(NewsNation) — The white man accused of shooting and killing 10 Black people Sunday during a racist attack in Buffalo, New York, allegedly wrote that his beliefs were formed online, where experts say radicalization efforts are strategic and pervasive.

Regardless of the organization or belief, common threads tend to run through people who are radicalized online, according to Brian Hughes, associate director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University in Washington, D.C.

Those already craving power, connection or a place to unload their frustration might find the messaging of white supremacy and other extremist movements alluring. Often, however, promises of relief are never delivered and the surrogate families these groups tout don’t last, Hughes said.

“There is a fairly consistent profile of the type of person who’s vulnerable to radicalization, but that profile also makes people vulnerable to other forms of antisocial behavior: drug and alcohol abuse, domestic or intimate partner abuse, gangs, criminal activity, stuff of that nature,” Hughes said.

“What the internet changed is that now it’s impossible to avoid the kind of extremist ideology and culture and media of extremist groups,” he continued.

In Buffalo, authorities are investigating the attack on mostly Black shoppers and workers at the Tops Friendly Market as a potential federal hate crime or act of domestic terrorism. The gunman allegedly wrote that his racist beliefs grew when he was “bored” during the pandemic and frequented a website that’s been largely criticized for housing racist and anti-Semitic posts from anonymous users.

He also chose a predominantly Black neighborhood as the site of his attack and traveled about 200 miles from his home to carry it out, investigators said.

It’s that kind of aggression that some mistake for power, according to University of Maryland professor Arie Kruglanski.

“The ideology is not why they’re doing it,” he said. “The ideology is the means for them to attain the significance that they crave.”

Put simply: They want to feel important. Other research shows that feelings of belonging, a duty to protect, or the sense of a larger purpose might also draw people in.

It’s an explanation but not an excuse for beliefs that, in the end, tend to single out specific groups of people by baselessly identifying a “very clear and well-identified enemy,” Hughes said. But any comfort someone might find in an extremist circle is short-lived, he added.

“If you speak with former extremists, what they tell you is that the feelings of hatred and isolation and alienation, and having been robbed of something that you deserve, just get worse and worse and worse, the more embedded in these worldviews that you become,” Hughes said.

Although online platforms have made extremist propaganda more accessible, the internet isn’t entirely to blame, said Teri Davis, a faculty member at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Oftentimes the seed of whatever extremist ideology a person is drawn to was planted before they found a home for it online, she said.

“I would not put all of the responsibility online, no,” Davis said. “I would say that social media has probably brought forth ideals that people had anyway and found a home for those ideals to be shared across the country or the world.”

While conversations about funding and access to mental healthcare tend to follow acts of gun violence, policy change can only do so much, Davis said.

Instead, the conversations born from mass shootings should place more of an emphasis on basic coping skills and destigmatization, she said.

“If you’re going to wait on a president, if you’re going to wait on your congressman, if you’re going to wait on your family members to solve these problems, you’ll be waiting a long time,” Davis said. “(Psychologists) say ‘some of the stuff, I think you can solve.’ But it’s an internal fight and battle to do it.”

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