Communication Studies Course Examines Terrorism as a Communicative Act
Terrorism can be a heavy subject for many to digest, but for Associate Professor Stephanie Danes Smith and School of Communication Studies Director Paul Haridakis, it is a teaching opportunity. For years, Smith and Haridakis have been analyzing how different communication tactics are used in terrorism and developed the Communication Studies course, Communication and Terrorism, as a result.
As professional communicators and professors of communication, their attention was drawn to how terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qa’ida used different tactics to harness public consciousness, enter the media marketplace and differentiate their brand.
Smith and Haridakis recall watching ISIS around 2014, as they were doing something new in the terrorism landscape. They weren’t using grainy videos produced and distributed clandestinely; they were using public social media platforms brazenly and with a great deal of sophistication.
The Communication and Terrorism course emphasizes to students that terrorism is an act of communication. Students are challenged to understand basic definitions of terrorism and think beyond conventional assumptions about terrorist organizations. They analyze communication from terrorist groups and discuss the effectiveness of the tactics used.
Smith and Haridakis touch on key points throughout each semester like messaging strategies and symbolism used by terrorist organizations. They also discuss implications of government attempts to curb terrorist communication and influence or limit press coverage of terrorism. They not only focus on historic incidences that occurred decades ago but also modern day happenings, including how these groups are using social media platforms to communicate.
Students also participate in an interactive group project. During the Fall 2021 semester, each group was challenged to act as if they were part of a national security counterterrorism task force, making a presentation to persuade the National Security Council that a specific extremist group should be labeled by the U.S. Government as an official terrorist group. Students collaborated to research and find evidence that backed their argument.
Both professors believe that this course can help students think more deeply about how professional communicators can bridge the social and geopolitical divides that often cause a rise in violent extremism.
Their motivation to talk about this challenging content each week is because of the students.
“The students fuel our passion,” Smith says. “This course attracts students who want to understand the world, who are hungry to explore intercultural issues and who care about global communication.”