An international team of academics led by The Open University and including the University of Malta has won €3.2m research funding to help people manage the development of extremist views at home and abroad in the run up to major political events.
Psychologists at the Open University and the University of Malta are working on developing tools for the project that has been funded by the European Commission’s Horizon Europe programme involving 17 partners across Europe and beyond its borders.
It will be used in the lead-up to events that are likely to become polarised, including national and European elections as well as referenda that, in extreme cases, split families.
The over-arching project is known as OppAttune and includes the development of a tool designed specifically for key target audiences to enable more productive democratic debate.
Yet it’s aiming to reach far beyond dinner-table discussions. The new ground-breaking tool is being developed by academics who hope it will limit the development of extreme narratives through showing people that their views might be considered extremist by others.
They plan to have the free self-test tool kit, known as I-Attune, available on the OU’s OpenLearn platform in 2025 to help citizens globally engage politically with each other without resorting to extremes. It will be available initially for three years but could be rolled out further.
Kesi Mahendran, Professor of Social and Political Psychology at the OU, is the scientific co-ordinator of OppAttune. The administrative co-ordinator is the Panteion University in Greece.
The project will allow citizens to assess three key aspects: their own susceptibility to extremism; their capacity to tune into other positions and their ability to sustain dialogue in highly polarised situations.
Kesi said: “Whether we sit around a dinner table discussing politics or in the echelons of power, democratic dialogue is crucial but there is huge capacity for ordinary people to either avoid politics or to become highly opinionated, partisan and entrenched.”
Prof Gordon Sammut, project leader at the University of Malta, said: “We are very excited about this project, which relies on methods developed here at the University of Malta that serve towards reconciling opposing views. We are very pleased to see that our work is helping counter extremism in Europe and we hope that it will also serve to boost political maturity in our country”.
Kesi continued: “Without the skills to navigate political situations, politicians and people in the media can easily mobilise others. The hope is OppAttune will give people the tools to maintain their political conversations without becoming so extreme that opposing parties or groups find them so threatening that they are removed.”
Six target audiences have been identified and include:
· The public through on-line engagement with I-Attune
· Young people: including school-age children and people aged 18-24 in countries within Europe; particularly Germany, the UK and Bosnia and Herzegovina
· Pro-Democracy media influencers that have 10,000 plus social media followers that are directly engaged with democratic issues across Europe
· Practitioners and policy-makers across Europe engaged with: democratic debate; prevention and countering violent extremism; and freedom of speech.
· Political actors at a local and national level; pro-democracy political organisations within the eight implementation countries on either side of the European Union border - Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Kosovar region, Serbia, and Iraq (all post-conflict zones), as well as Portugal, Cyprus, the UK and Malta (all understood to have polarising issues within their own borders that can be stirred up by political events).
· The scientific research community