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Teaching and confronting digital extremism: contexts, challenges and opportunities

Stephen C. Rea (University Honors and Scholars Program, Colorado School of Mines, Golden, Colorado, USA)

Information and Learning Sciences

ISSN: 2398-5348

Article publication date: 20 January 2022

Issue publication date: 18 February 2022




This paper aims to offer practical guidance on teaching about digital extremism – defined here as the intersection of digital disinformation campaigns with political extremism – by highlighting four pedagogical challenges: the danger of unintentionally “redpilling” students; the slippery slope to false equivalency and “bothsidesism” in turbulent partisan waters; the difficulty of separating empirical analyses from prescriptive debates circulating in popular media; and the trouble of getting students to understand digital extremism as a sociotechnical problem rather than as a social-or-technical problem. The conclusion proposes opportunities for educators to integrate practical approaches to confronting digital extremism with digital civics curricula.


This paper reviews pedagogical challenges and outlines a curricular program for teaching about digital extremism drawn from the author’s experience designing undergraduate courses and open teaching modules between 2016 and 2021.


Educators should shift focus from the substance of digital extremism to its tools – social media platforms’ surveillance and data-gathering methods, advertising technologies and monetized user-generated content, personalized recommendation algorithms and media manipulation strategies that amplify some narratives while suppressing others – and the media and political institutions that benefit most from it. Proposed lessons include: how digital extremists manipulate social media metadata; engagement with data creation and targeting practices; and analysis of information production, circulation and consumption exploring media manipulation tools and their effects.


This paper’s added values are the insights and practical recommendations for undergraduate educators teaching on a topic of urgent contemporary concern: digital extremism.



The author would like to thank Bill Maurer and Jenny C. Fan for their guidance and assistance; Joan Donovan for her expertise and counsel; Colin Bernatzky and Sion Avakian for their collaboration; the research networks that author has been fortunate enough to participate in (even as a marginal figure); and his students, who encounter digital extremism in their daily lives and whose experiences will no doubt inspire future strategies for confronting it.

Funding: The author’s open teaching modules referenced above were created in part with funding from the University of California, Irvine’s Office of Inclusive Excellence’s Confronting Extremism initiative.


Rea, S.C. (2022), "Teaching and confronting digital extremism: contexts, challenges and opportunities", Information and Learning Sciences, Vol. 123 No. 1/2, pp. 7-25.



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