A Moonshot against extremism
When armed insurrectionists stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, Vidhya Ramalingam wasn’t surprised.
A day earlier, her company Moonshot CVE, which monitors and combats online extremism, set up a crisis team in response to a flood of indications that the pro-Trump rally scheduled for Washington could turn violent.
Moonshot works to pull back from the brink people who have been inculcated into white supremacist movements, conspiracy theories and radical ideologies, and it offered crisis intervention to some 270,000 high-risk users around the time of the Capitol breach.
“For organizations like ours that have been working on domestic violent extremism for many years, and in the run up to the election and the months that followed, this was not a surprise, that this attack happened,” Ramalingam said.
But even the 33-year-old Ramalingam, who has spent her entire career focused on the issue both domestically and abroad, says the widespread nature of radicalization in the U.S. is alarming.
“It’s a very scary moment in America right now. I mean, the implications are so wide-reaching,” she told The Hill in a recent interview. “There’s just the potential for so much more violence right now.”
Ramalingam got her start embedding herself with white nationalist groups in Sweden for two years as part of her graduate studies.
“It was really tough. I spent a lot of time around people saying and spouting lies about people of color and about immigrants and people like me, so there were moments that were really horrible to sit and listen to,” she said.
But the experience helped open a window into their world and how people become radicalized.
“Some of them had life experiences that had led them here. And for me, it was really important to see that in order to then start to piece together, well, how could you get someone out?” she said.
When far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik murdered 77 people in Norway in July 2011, the European Union tapped Ramalingam to lead its first intergovernmental initiative to respond to right-wing terrorism, a job she held for three years.
She worked on deradicalizing initiatives such as Exit Germany and Exit Sweden that included efforts setting up counseling interventions and training family members and loved ones.
She also sits on the board of Life After Hate, a U.S.-based group that provides similar interventions along with building a network of former extremists to push back on extremist content.
But Ramalingam says the problem needs larger-scale responses, something that became clear with the rise of ISIS and its use of social media to radicalize people.
“There was this sense of defeat, that the terrorists were winning and that they were just better than we were, they were able to use technology better,” she said.
The London-based Moonshot, which opened its D.C. office this week, seeks to scale up monitoring and intervention using the kinds of targeting that have become commonplace in business to build personalized responses.
The company counts a slew of governments, the United Nations and major tech companies such as Facebook and Google among its funders, and groups including the Anti-Defamation League among its partners.
“Technology can actually have the power to scale up really deeply personalized interactions the same way that every single advertisement we see is personalized towards me, my gender, my behavior online, my identity, where I live,” said Ramalingam.
“It really is literally the same thing that Coca-Cola is doing to sell us more Coke. We’re using those same tools to reach people and try and offer them safer alternatives, and either save their lives or save other people’s lives.”
Those efforts, which range from widely used platforms such as Google and Facebook to more niche ones such as Gab and Telegram, have led to some surprising results.
While countering facts and ideological debates seldom work to engage people online, a more empathic approach seems to yield gains. In a recent round of tests, Moonshot’s target audience was 17 percent more likely to engage with posts featuring the simple message that “anger and grief can be isolating” compared to other tested messages.
Other content focused on deescalating anger and even breathing exercises also found fertile ground.
But Ramalingam says the threat is also evolving.
“We’ve seen this kind of blending and metastasization of various once-distinct ideologies, groups and movements. You know, everything from white supremacist and neo-Nazis with armed groups and anti-vaxxers and election conspiracies,” she says.
“These groups weren’t always coordinating, and now we’re suddenly seeing this mess online come together.”
There are a slew of factors at play, including what Ramalingam says is a tepid response from technology companies that have “systematically overlooked and been unwilling to respond” to the threat, though the Capitol insurrection last month could be changing that. Tech platforms, she notes, were far more aggressive when dealing with ISIS and have proven tools on issues such as suicide prevention that show how much more they could be doing.
Another major contributor to the problem has been the willingness of people in positions of power to bolster conspiracy theories and misinformation, whether through full-throated endorsements or more subtle means, such as winking claims that questions remain in actual clear-cut cases or that certain facts are unknowable.
“Political leaders and people in that level of power should absolutely not be lending any credence to conspiracy theories and disinformation. Lending even the tiniest inkling of credence to those conspiracy theories is hugely dangerous because of the position of power that they’re in,” she said.
Ramalingam is no stranger to Washington, having grown up just a few hours away and later testifying before Congress on the threat of white nationalism.
She says she has been in touch with senior members of the Biden administration on how to take a whole-of-government approach to combatting right-wing extremism, which FBI Director Christopher Wray says is the top terrorism threat the country faces.
She worries that the country will assume that the events of Jan. 6 were the apex of a movement, rather than simply the latest in a series of deadly attacks ranging from Charlottesville, Va., to Pittsburgh to El Paso, Texas.
“For those of us that have been working on this form of extremism for 10 plus years now, it would be misleading to say that this is the — kind of the crescendo and now it’s going to dissipate,” she said.
“I think there’s a risk for the U.S. government, that the response following the Jan. 6 events focuses on public statements and on Band-Aids and not on the changes and the real shifts that need to take place in the entire system to deal with domestic violent extremism,” she said.