Paw Bway Htoo boarded a plane from Omaha to D.C. this week wondering if her looks, her name, her thick accent or the fact that she entered this country as a refugee would put her at risk.
She had little reason to worry: Paw is a U.S. citizen. She comes from Thailand, which is not on President Donald Trump’s just-announced list of banned countries. And she’s a college honor student traveling with classmates and a professor, an expert on the Islamic State, to brief federal officials on how to blunt the digital reach of extremists.
Still, Paw was afraid. She fears our fear.
And she and the rest of her University of Nebraska at Omaha group say Americans’ fear is stoked by Trump’s order.
Last week’s order does the following: It sharply cuts the total number of refugees allowed this year, suspends refugee arrivals for 120 days, indefinitely bars Syrian refugees and bans people from seven majority-Muslim countries for 90 days.
The president characterized his executive order as a way to protect Americans. But opponents have decried the action as antithetical to the very idea of what it means to be American.
Paw, a 23-year-old with a long ponytail who grew up in a refugee camp, said she feels like Trump is creating an opening for people to fear refugees and treat them badly.
And her professor, Gina Ligon, says the order plays right into the hands of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups she studies. She said it makes their presentation in Washington, D.C., today even more vital, for the UNO students will be showing lawmakers how to counter such groups.
The UNO students are competing in a unique and relatively new anti-terrorism effort by the federal government to fight fire with fire in social media.
Because social media offers such broad and immediate reach, terrorist and hate groups have been using it to their advantage. But now federal officials, with help from Facebook and a firm called EdVenture Partners, have asked college students to develop so-called “peer-to-peer” campaigns to counter violent extremism.
The hope is that young people can create a digital message of belonging, tolerance and acceptance. Because the messengers are young, this new digital content may be seen as more authentic and therefore better than any formal, overtly government-created message.
Launched two years ago, the contest rewards top participants with trips to Washington, face time with policymakers and cash prizes. UNO was one of four U.S.-based colleges or universities selected in the most recent round, out of some 50. Paw and four classmates will give their presentation today to an audience of about 200 people from the Homeland Security and State Departments and social media leaders.
Teams were free to choose how to create their campaigns and where to focus. UNO’s group decided last fall to shine a light on refugees, given how many wind up in Nebraska. The group’s target audience was Nebraska college students who might not have much exposure to refugees or knowledge of their situation. The UNO students then designed a campaign around their classmate, Paw.
They determined that knowing refugees personally made a difference. After inviting some other students to Paw’s family home for a meal, they documented how students reacted: grateful for the meal; warmed by the hospitality; encouraged and interested in learning more.
“This seemingly simple art of sharing a meal together made it possible to bridge cultural divides,” student Virginia Gallner explained. “Experiences like this can rectify uncertainties.”
But since you can’t take everyone to dinner, they then went digital, turning to videos, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to tell Paw’s story. The digital campaign drew some 17,000 views of a 4-minute video featuring Paw; and almost 77,000 views of the group’s Facebook page, “The Refugee Perspective.”
Some of the comments on the group’s page show what they’re up against. One man called their effort “idiotic.” Another told Paw to go “fix your own country.” A third called on the group to “take care of our own first.”
Despite such reactions, the students found that bringing their message to a larger audience had an effect. Using high-tech eyeball tracking, they could see how the video resonated. In an experiment, some people were shown the Paw video while others saw something else. Then both groups were shown a web page crowded with content, including a small ad featuring Paw and the refugee issue. Not surprisingly, those who had seen the video spent more time looking at the Paw ad.
And those longer looks created an emotional connection. When surveyed later, students who saw the Paw video were far more likely than the others to view refugees in a positive way.
“This finding is huge,” student Ananya Mitra said, “because it quantifies, it shows you this campaign can change the mindset.”
Influencing the hearts and minds of young people is both the goal of the U.S. project and the strategy behind terrorist groups. Which side will win?
Ligon, a business professor who studies the organizational structure of the Islamic State and other groups, said their social media presence is big, well-organized and effective. Terrorist leaders suggest a theme of the day, such as “brotherhood,” and sympathizers trot out examples of that theme in photos, videos and stories. That bolsters propaganda about joining the terrorist group.
Trump’s order, Ligon said, was a big gift to such terrorist recruitment. She said it undermines U.S. promises of refugee resettlement to translators and others asked to help the U.S. And she said the order offers yet another argument for joining a terrorist group.
Over the weekend, Ligon said, she saw the social media feeds of terrorist groups that held up the order as some kind of proof: See? The U.S. is punishing Muslims and attacking our religion.
“Part of ISIS’s rhetoric is there’s this pending great apocalyptic war between the powers of the west and ISIS,” she said.
But she said the U.S. can change that storyline with a countermessage: America is a diverse and welcoming place, where refugees like Paw not only find a home but also can make a difference.