A team of students from the Rochester Institute of Technology received the top award in a State Department initiative to combat the spread of violent extremism in the digital realm.
The State Department challenged university students from around the world to create and implement digital projects that “strengthen communities and societies against violent extremist ideologies that recognize no borders,” according to a press release. This is the third semester it has hosted the competition, announcing the awards from the spring “Peer to Peer [P2P]: Challenging Extremism” initiative this week.
“ISIL uses fear to motivate, to further their cause and further their agenda,” said Olivia Hauck, a recent graduate of RIT and a member of the winning team. “We wanted to take an opposite approach and motivate people through compassion and motivate people through understanding.”
The Rochester Institute of Technology students won a $5,000 prize for their project, “It’s Time: #ExOut Violent Extremism.” Teams from Vesalius College in Brussels, Belgium, and Khazar University in Baku, Azerbaijan, won $3,000 second place and $1,000 third place prizes, respectively.
Each of the 47 participating spring-semester teams received $2,000 to implement their campaigns and $400 in ad credits from Facebook, a co-sponsor of the initiative.
The RIT project includes a Twitter account, Facebook page, website, Instagram, and a Youtube channel with a promo video and stories from the community. The team also hosted educational events in local high schools and organized an art show.
The project started with a hand gesture for photos: crossing index fingers to make an “X,” Hauck said.
The “Xs” stand for three things, per one of the group’s Facebook posts:
1. The X representation is meant to signify the “exing out” or getting rid of violent extremism and stereotypes.
2. It is also meant to signify an individual’s ability to avoid extremist propaganda on the web by “exing out” of the browser window.
3. When people come together to #ExOut it is meant to show us all standing in solidarity and supporting victims of violent extremism.
Their tweets sometimes incorporate the photos of “X” gesture with quotes from famous figures or people in the Muslim community.
The tweet is accompanied with a photo of the symbolic “X” and a quote from a Warsan Shire poem about the refugee experience: “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”
The students estimate their project has reached at least 350,000 people.
“When we were first presented with the project we thought that the best way to go about this was through an educational standpoint, and kind of inform people so that the fear can diminish a little bit and so that they can be more willing and open to help,” said Hauck, the strategies and implementation department head for the project.
The students launched their campaign in March.