Meet Chris Stewart, our new Honorary Research Associate

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We are delighted that former MSc student, Chris Stewart, is now an Honorary Research Associate of the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway.

Chris has extensive expertise and experience working on counter-extremism and counter-hate initiatives at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. He has worked with a range of actors from social media companies to the UK Home Office and US State Department.

The short interview below introduces Chris and his work and we very much look forward to working him in the near future.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do? 

I am a former student of Royal Holloway, with a BSc in Geography, Politics and International Relations and an MSc in Geopolitics and Security. Currently I am a Project Manager for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a London-based non-profit organisation countering hate and extremism. In my work I use social listening and network mapping tools (more familiar to the advertising world) to uncover trends in the propaganda being produced and consumed by extremist groups online. With this information I am able to inform and direct projects that empower civil society organisations to better respond to the challenges facing their communities. In the three years I have been at ISD, I have worked on projects in partnership with technology companies, governments, civil society organisations and academic institutes from around the world.

What does a day at the institute for strategic dialogue look like?

The combination of research and project delivery means my work priorities change day-to-day. As an example, during one-week last year I delivered a training session to Eastern European civil society organisations in Moldova for Facebook and the OSCE; trawled through online message boards to study the motivations of the alt-right; and planned the strategy for a project I manage in the UK called the Online Civil Courage Initiative. It is a diverse and challenging place to work! When I arrived as a volunteer in September 2015 there were 17 people in the office working on four or five projects. Today, there are 50 people in our head office London, we have offices in North America and the Middle East and our projects are numbered in the dozens. My experience working on counter-messaging campaigns (specifically counter and alternative-narratives) means I am often pulled into meetings and discussions on various projects and issues. Currently I am working on a research report into alternative social media platforms, planning an event in Berlin to train young activists in how to identity and challenge fake news and managing the development of a website.

What’s the most exciting aspect of your job?

The opportunity to meet people with such diverse backgrounds and experiences is always exciting. In my time at ISD I have worked with world leading experts in counter extremism, former extremists, survivors of terror attacks, people running vital volunteer networks to support refugees and countless organisations doing inspirational work for faith, ethnic, gender and LGBTQ groups. It is also exciting to interact with such a broad range of project funders, and to be an interface between the public, private and civic spheres. It has meant I have been involved in the practical and logistical details of how governments, private companies and civil society organisations interact with each other and approach a shared challenge with different interests. This is especially pertinent when working on content removal policies for social media companies.

Can you tell us a bit about the most exciting/challenging project you’ve worked on?

All the projects I have worked on have been interesting and exciting. When I first joined, I was coordinating an online video series campaign for a US organisation that wanted to pull white supremacists away from lives of hate and violence. Reading the messages from active white supremacists who had seen the videos I had advertised for the organisation, and who were asking for support and advice to leave their groups, was an eye-opening experience. I still read over the messages when I need a bit of extra motivation in the office some days.

Where do you see the future directions in your field?

In the short space of time I have worked at ISD we have witnessed a dramatic and coordinated polarisation of public discourse and political ideology across the world. Europe and the US are experiencing a renaissance of far-right political ideology, with Steve Bannon recently announcing the establishment of ‘The Movement’. The President of the United States said last year that there was such a thing as a ‘good’ neo-Nazi. Political parties across Europe are pedalling explicitly racist messages and gaining considerable support for doing so. Meanwhile, Islamist extremism remains a violent global issue, and will be for at least another generation.

Efforts to counter extremist ideologies are becoming harder as the lines between mainstream and fringe ideologies are blurring and as the motivations of political elites become more closely aligned to that of extremists. The scale and speed in which information can travel on social media and communication platforms has contributed to the radicalisation of individuals who previously may never have even encountered such materials. It is for sure an important time to be working in the field of counter extremism. From my perspective, the future direction for countering extremist ideologies must be focused on fortifying (or establishing) a healthy civil society, and empowering people to make the changes needed to slow and ultimately defeat the ideologies that threaten human rights and democratic values.

How did the MSc in geopolitics and Security help to prepare you for the role?

The MSc in Geopolitics and Security was helpful in so many ways. From a topic perspective, it introduced me to the theory and practical application of how power is articulated through the creation, delivery and consumption of information. Whether this was from studying the geopolitics of film, learning about the ways governments coordinate emergency responses to national security issues or developing ‘scenario building’ matrixes for imagined and potential geopolitical threats. All of this has been valuable in informing my work, especially when creating, delivering and targeting strategic communication campaigns to vulnerable audiences in an attempt to build their ability to identify and dismiss extremist propaganda. The practical assignments were also valuable. For my job, I often write reports for internal funders and I learned a lot on the MSc of how to articulate project work in a clear and digestible way.

Do you have any advice for current students aiming to get into a similar fields?

I can only really speak to my own experience in terms of advice for students. I suppose a simple thing to say is that working hard is easier when you enjoy the work! I would encourage any student to be selective in the direction they go down, even at the start when looking for volunteer or internship positions. If you cast the net too wide you could end up working in a field you are not particularly interested in and find it hard to remain motivated. Having said that, wherever a student may end up once they have completed their studies I think it is important that they see the bigger picture and understand that the skills and experience they pick up will be transferable to future jobs. Also, write great CVs and cover letters. When I review applications for jobs, it is so frustrating to a) read poorly written and structured documents, and b) to interview someone and find out that they have loads of interesting and relevant experiences and skills that they failed to note down in their CV or cover letter. People sell themselves short sometimes.

What are you most looking forward to as a Research Fellow?

I am really looking forward to reconnecting with an excellent university department that offered me so much in my four years at Royal Holloway. I hope I can provide something of value to the department, and in turn have the opportunity to once again learn from a group of talented professors, lecturers and students. I also hope that, despite my relatively short working life to date, I can provide something interesting to the students both from my experience going through the ranks from volunteer to manager and from the work itself.

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