A UCO team aiming to combat online extremism recently earned second place at a Department of Homeland Security competition.
The University of Central Oklahoma’s uDefy team poses with their Fall 2016 Finalist banner. The team, with proposal on online extremism, placed second nationally after presenting to the Department of Homeland Security. (Provided/Tommy Johnson).
A team of four students from the Mass Communication Department placed second in Department of Homeland Security’s national “Peer to Peer: Combating Extremism” competition in Washington D.C., on Feb. 1, 2017.
The uDefy project was created by UCO students Kaitlyn Britschgi, Tommy Johnson, Ashley Neese and Yusuf A. Shurbaji along with the help of UCO alumna Laura Goehler and UCO lecturer, Sandy Martin.
The project aimed to combat online extremism and prejudice, while also providing facts that would lead to a more empathetic understanding of different races, backgrounds and beliefs.
“It [uDefy] is a call to action, or people to defy prejudice, extremism and stereotypes … that all have a similar tolerance that leads up to extremism,” Johnson said.
Team member Tommy Johnson, a senior Strategic Communications major, said that the task was to develop a completely digital online campaign, with an original name and website, while also incorporating social media posts, something that the team did in their spare time.
“We did it all basically in about 28 days,” Johnson said.
Since then, uDefy has been able to reach over a million people in 84 countries, according to the uDefy website.
The team had a $400 ad credit through Facebook that they used to promote the campaign’s message.
— uDefy Project (@udefyproject) January 5, 2017
“Within minutes we started to see the numbers just skyrocket in countries like India, Russia, several countries in Africa, the southern United States. We really only thought that it was going to be impacting the United States,” Johnson said. “When we stretched that profile globally, it just started spreading.”
The team was chosen as one of the top four out of over 80 schools who submitted a proposal to the Department of Homeland Security. The team then traveled to D.C. to compete and present the project to a panel of government, business and nonprofit leaders.
“We were excited to present but we were very nervous because we didn’t know what to expect,” Johnson said.
Anyone looking to commit to uDefy had to follow four steps.
Step one was to for people to face their truth by considering beliefs, admitting prejudices and opening their minds about extremism.
Step two involved taking uDefy’s online quiz that gave facts regarding violent extremism and what were some of the false narratives that have been circulating around the web.
After the quiz people could receive a commitment certificate from uDefy asking them to get out of their comfort zones, work on changing perspectives and defying individual assumptions about extremism.
The final step of uDefy was to spread the word about what people had learned while also sharing the quiz so more people could become aware about false information about the topic.
Johnson said that the data collected from the uDefy website showed signs that people didn’t consider how extremism starts.
“They spent countless hours redoing things because it wasn’t quite right… They were non-stop working on it, they would be up all night changing things because they were just driven to do that,” Sandy Martin said. “I knew that we had a really strong campaign.”
Other endorsements for the project included the UCO Office of Global Affairs, the Muslim Student Association, the Islamic Circle of North America, UCO Faculty member Dr. David Macey, and UCO President Don Betz.