A View from the CT Foxhole: Vidhya Ramalingam, Co-Founder, Moonshot CVE.

AuthorCruickshank, Paul

CTC: What led you to start working in the countering violent extremism space, and what for you have been the lessons learned?

Ramalingam: I got into this space just over 10 years ago. My earliest jobs were in the migration space. As someone who grew up as the kid of Indian immigrants in North America, I spent a lot of time thinking about race, identity, migration, and became increasingly fascinated with white supremacy movements, movements that had notions of pure race and pure identity. I started researching and looking into non-violent anti-immigration movements and violent anti-immigration movements.

And I became increasingly frustrated by the unwillingness of so many people that were working against those movements to actually interact with individuals involved in these movements. To my mind, if the ultimate end goal is to change people's minds, we have to be able to have a conversation with them. You have to be able to talk to them, understand why they're there.

So I embarked on a project where I essentially carried out field work with a white nationalist movement in Sweden. I spent years learning Swedish and really built up my expertise on Swedish white nationalist movements, far-right movements, and I just started attending rallies, attending demonstrations, starting conversations with people at those demonstrations. And it was a tough experience, especially being a woman of color attempting to interact with largely white male, white nationalist movements. But people opened up to me, and I think people are often surprised at the willingness of people who are in white nationalist movements to talk to individuals that they believe to be the enemy.

I was able to really get to know people that were involved in the movement over the course of 2010 when I was in the field, and that experience for me was transformational. It really showed me that the individuals that get involved in these sorts of movements are human beings with, in many cases, very rational stories as to why they got there and very clear experiences in their lives that led them to believe the things they believed. I started to develop some strong perspectives around how counter-extremism work needed to be delivered and needed to be really focused on human interactions and engagements with individuals involved in these movements to try to get them out.

I concluded that work and entered into the counterterrorism space. It wasn't until Anders Breivik carried out his attack on Utoya island and Oslo in 2011, killing 77 people, that European governments woke up to the threat of the violent far-right and really started to bring the violent far-right to the table in national security discussions.

And so that was a real turning point for me, especially having worked in the Nordic countries on far-right extremism. I then worked with the Swedish government, the Norwegian government, and a couple of the other Nordic governments to set up the E.U.'s first cross-governmental initiative to build capacity to respond to far-right terrorism. I was working, at that stage, across 10 European countries, working directly with the ministries and the policymakers that were responsible for building up their portfolios on farright terrorism but also working with local NGOs and with former extremists to build up programs to respond to far-right terrorism. That for me was my real entry point into CVE. I ran that program from 2012 to 2014.

We launched Moonshot CVE in September of 2015, and we launched at a time when there was a real opening for an organization that was going to try to test new things in the online space. And for me, having come from a background where I had facilitated direct conversations with people in white nationalist movements, where I firmly believed that a social-work approach is critical, I really felt that to deliver this work in an online setting, we can't limit ourselves to ideological counter-messaging online. We need to deliver programs online that recognize that in the 21st century, every single user that exists online is a human being. People's lives span the online and the offline. And so my co-founder and I wanted to build an organization that could test our theories around the delivery of social work-based approaches in an online setting.

CTC: What goals have you set for Moonshot CVE?

Ramalingam: Moonshot CVE has a very bold mission statement: to disrupt and ultimately end violent extremism. And it's deliberately ambitious. My co-founder Ross Frenett and I set up the organization three and a half years ago, having worked in the CVE/counterterrorism space for many years, and we saw a gap in the sector for an organization that was institutionally capable of taking risks and innovating in the true sense of the word, trial-testing things that hadn't been tried before. So often organizations that are delivering CVE programs are incapable of innovating, they're incapable of testing things not already proven to be effective. We developed a business model that was essentially a social enterprise in nature. We reinvest our own profit into our own R&D programs, our own development of software, our own trial testing, and we manage that risk ourselves. And once we get proof of concept, we can then scale initiatives up with partners who would otherwise be unable to take those risks.

CTC: How does Moonshot CVE work to identify people at risk of violent extremism?

Ramalingam: We find that individuals that are at risk of violent extremism, whether it's violent white supremacy or jihadism, oftentimes leave behind a trail of clues in the online space, a kind of digital footprint that lets us know they're getting involved. What we wanted to do with Moonshot CVE was build tools that would help us to automate the process of identifying those sorts of individuals and these communities online. So, we developed software that helps to analyze publicly available clues and processes those clues in hard-to-reach spaces on encrypted platforms, to try to help us scale up the identification of those individuals. That's our starting point.

But then secondly, we deploy programs that attempt to interact with those communities online in different ways. One way that we interact with those communities online is to develop campaigns that try to ensure that, somewhere in the online journey of that individual, they get offered alternative content, safer content, content that tries to essentially debunk some of these ideologies.

Here I should point out that what we found most effective is content that basically offers them the possibility to change, offers them the possibility to talk to someone. That then leads to another area of programming for us, which is the delivery of social work in the online space, where we facilitate the meeting of social workers and at-risk individuals, starting with conversations online but then transitioning into offline...

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