Pitt and CMU launch center dedicated to combating extremism

Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University announced today they are jointly launching a new center to study extremist hate. The Collaboratory Against Hate — Research and Action Center will bring together scholars at both universities to develop effective tools that inhibit hate’s creation, growth and destructive consequences.

Kathleen BleeThe collaboratory is being led by two top experts in extremist hate groups and cybersecurity — Kathleen Blee, dean of Pitt’s Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences and a professor of Sociology, and Lorrie Cranor, director and professor in Security and Privacy Technologies in CMU’s CyLab.

The center will seek experts from a variety of disciplines — including computer science, data science, social sciences, psychology, psychiatry and the law — to better understand and combat hatred based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation and other prejudices.

“We’ve launched Collaboratory Against Hate with a clear purpose: to mobilize our experts and assets together so that we can better understand and address extreme hate — in its many iterations and implications — across the world,” Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said in a news release.

“The spread of extremist hate is undeniably insidious and increasingly dangerous. We have witnessed its violent consequences in our own community, including the horrific attack at the Tree of Life synagogue building, and have also seen this epidemic pose an existential threat to our nation’s democracy,” said Carnegie Mellon President Farnam Jahanian. “CMU and Pitt have a unique opportunity to work against this socially destructive force and enhance our multipronged efforts against all forms of hatred.”

Researchers will study how extremism originates and circulates, how it shapes extremist views and fosters polarization in society, and how it provokes harmful and illegal acts, with a focus on its effects on minoritized and marginalized groups in society.

The center will partner with various stakeholders — ranging from victimized communities and advocacy groups to technology companies and policymakers — to better understand underlying issues and design intervention tools.

Blee, who has studied white supremacism for more than 30 years, said that extremist hate groups have radically changed the way they operate and mobilize people to advance their agendas. The internet and social media not only provide groups with a vast arena for recruitment, but also places where they can hide.

“They’ve made the distribution, mobilization and spread of online hate much harder to monitor and prosecute. It’s also more difficult to decipher the extent to which virtual communities of hate are simply reinforcing each other or being pushed by organized extremist organizations,” Blee said. “That’s created challenges for researchers and law enforcement who are trying to understand how these groups work and how to intervene.”

“This is fundamentally an interdisciplinary problem,” Cranor said. “As our machine learning experts create new ways to detect hate speech and misinformation, it’s important that they partner with social scientists who are researching the thought processes of extremist groups. Together, we can make greater progress toward understanding how these groups communicate, recruit and organize, and, hopefully, create interventions that will help reduce the spread of hate.”

The idea for this center came from the long-standing partnership between CMU President Emeritus Jared Cohon and Pitt Chancellor Emeritus Mark Nordenberg. While serving together on a committee created by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh in the immediate aftermath of the Tree of Life synagogue attack in October 2018, they were asked to explore ways in which the community might constructively respond to the hate-fueled violence that occurred that day. Cohon and Nordenberg then worked with a group of faculty members at both universities, who contributed to the establishment of the center.

“Before the deadly attack at the Tree of Life synagogue, I rather naively assumed that love always would triumph over hate,” Nordenberg said. “As I came to learn more about the powerful tools that are being used to accelerate the spread of hate, however, it seemed clear that in today’s world, love needs a helping hand. This center will be positioned to provide badly needed forms of help.”

“I’m enthusiastic because, as with so many other partnerships throughout our history, CMU and Pitt complement each other very well,” said Cohon, who is also a CMU University professor. “Both universities bring great strengths to a large and urgent problem in society. I know we won’t solve the spread of extremist hate by ourselves, but I’m confident we can create exciting, effective approaches by collaborating together.”


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