Faculty members’ UNESCO presentation focuses on refugees, communication

Two Penn State faculty members will travel to Paris to share research at a UNESCO forum titled “Youth and the Internet: Fighting Radicalization and Extremism” this summer.

Mark A. Brennan, Penn State’s UNESCO chair and a professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences, and Colleen Connolly-Ahern, an associate professor in the College of Communications, will participate in the conference, which runs June 16-17. Their research is focused on refugees and communication.

“We’re working on an ethnographic methodology for trying to figure out what the lived world of the Internet is for people who might be more likely to become radicalized, trying to understand the sorts of places they may navigate to,” said Connolly-Ahern. “First, we’re trying to understand what kinds of information are available to them on those sites -- can they find help with relocation, support for their studies, information about job and housing opportunities? Then, we’re looking at those online worlds to see where they intersect with what we would consider both socializing and radicalizing information. The issue being that when someone is in a refugee situation, or when any young person is under a tremendous amount of stress, they may be likely to fall victim to some sort of radicalization attempt.

“What we’re hoping to identify are logical places to intervene, because one place that we know a lot of these eyes are is in the Internet.”

Connolly-Ahern, along with doctoral candidate and W. LaMarr Kopp award winner Akshaya Sreenivasan, are working on a grant funded by the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communications, a research center housed in the College of Communications. At the forum, the two will be presenting their method for the ongoing research, looking to get feedback and assistance from others.

The project uses software called TouchGraph Navigator 2, which will help analyze the data.

“TouchGraph can help visualize and clarify relationships between Internet sites. We can then use that information to find clusters of sites that have related content,” said Connolly-Ahern.

“Ideally, we will be able to find people to partner with us and do the same methodology in multiple places,” said Connolly-Ahern. “The second idea would be to see if you could get funding then for people to help us work with a larger project.”

UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, was created in 1945 to help establish peace among nations on the basis of humanity’s moral and intellectual solidarity.

The conference was formed to share experiences on policy interventions, projects and processes for reducing the use of the Internet as a tool for youth extremism and radicalism. The forum will consist of researchers and experts from an array of places who have knowledge of the field.

The Page Center is dedicated to the study and advancement of ethics and responsibility in corporate communication and other forms of public communication.

Last Updated May 26, 2015