For the first time in AUBG, juniors and seniors have the chance to participate in the international Peer to Peer: Challenging Extremism competition as part of a two-credit topics course. The class is a joint project by the Political Science and the Journalism and Mass Communication Departments and it can be counted towards either one of the two majors.
The students in the class are expected to pitch, develop and implement a campaign on social media that counteracts e
xtremist groups. Professor B. Phillips, from the Political Science Department, and Professor L. Leonard, chair of the JMC Department, guide the students in the process by providing them with substantial reading and writing materials, as well as constructive feedback. They both believe this initiative provides hands-on experience and can be a valuable tool in developing students’ skills across the two fields of study.
“When doing their senior projects, JMC students have problems with the lack of financing, so they can’t actually implement their project in real life. This is why the competition comes very useful,” concluded Leonard.
Boyana Atanasova, a student majoring in JMC and POS, enrolled in the class because she sees a great chance for development, by working on a real-time project with a client. Sonja Methoxa and Maria Paskaleva both agree that the class requires a lot of dedication but the project is worth its time. “It’s exciting to be part of something bigger that fights for a good cause,” said Paskaleva.
Two years after the initial launch, more than 200 universities worldwide are currently taking part in the contest. Starting with just 23 universities, the P2P: Challenging Extremism initiative was organized by the consulting agency EdVenture Partners and Facebook, with the support of the U.S . Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State. As the campaign is mostly incorporated online, Facebook finances each team with a $2000 implementation budget and an additional $400 of Facebook advertising credit. In addition, every team is assigned with a mediator from EdVenture Partners, who maintains a constant connection between students and the final client – Facebook.
According to Leonard, although new media platforms are often misused by extremist groups, the competition provides the opportunity to use them as tools against radical ideologies. She also added that, in order to counteract them effectively, students should understand how extremist groups, such as ISIS, are using social media to promote and build their brand.
Past projects proved to be very successful in grasping the right media channels and promoting their campaigns. The students from the University of Lugano, Switzerland aimed to raise awareness on the destruction of cultural heritage by their #faces4heritage campaign. The WANTmovement (We Are Not Them), developed in the Mount Royal University in Canada, debunks myths about the Islamic religion and false representation of the Muslim identity. The 52Jumaa App, established in the Curtin University in Australia, creates real-world challenges for self-improvement, where people can connect, define weekly goals and earn points. Although they differ in subjects, all campaigns fight against fanatical ideas in our daily life.
“We can sit and complain about the situation or we can simply work on something that affects the world,” Philips said. He is aware that these campaigns cannot radically provoke a global effect, however, they certainly are able to change attitudes within their effective audiences. As a mass communication specialist, Leonard agrees that social media is a useful method in reaching a broader audience and countering online extremist publicity. “There’s something you can’t deny about the person in front of you and face-to-face interaction is important when trying to evoke behavioral change,” she said.
The diverse group of 18 individuals representing the AUBG team is currently taking its first steps towards building the campaign. The students are still trying to tune to each other and appoint the most suitable responsibilities for each team-member. Depending on their success and dedication, as well as on the faculty members’ opinions, it will be decided whether a future class will be offered. Markus Wien, a Professor teaching history in AUBG, is looking forward to seeing the final results, which the whole AUBG community will be able to find online in the next two months