Junior communication studies major Thomas Hernandez has many varied interests, but a love for history is what unites them all. After investigating topics like dance in Puerto Rico as a freshman, Hernandez is taking on a new research project titled "Radicalization in the Age of COVID-19" with the aid of a Creative Arts, Research, And Scholarship (CARAS) Grant. This project will propel him further toward his long-term goals of joining the military; pursuing graduate studies of either international relations, political science or history; and eventually, he hopes, working for the government.
For this project, Hernandez is examining propaganda that led to radicalization during the COVID-19 pandemic. More specifically, he is focusing on the Islamic State and their propaganda tactics. Hernandez believes that propaganda is a powerful factor in radicalization — often, he says, it is where the process begins.
"There's good propaganda and bad propaganda. Some people might even say that the American Dream is a form of propaganda," he says. "It's not just Joseph Goebbels doing propaganda videos about America in Nazi Germany — it ranges."
Hernandez says his interest in propaganda and radicalization began to grow over the summer, when he was watching a lot of documentaries about WWII filmmakers. These filmmakers were instrumental to the record of history, tasked with relaying news back home and creating propaganda of their own. Hernandez also realized that the topic of radical propaganda is still of the utmost importance to security and safety abroad and at home.
"This stuff saves lives," he says. "So if we can dissect the propaganda and see trends, then we can stop this stuff from happening."
The goal is for Hernandez to complete the project with a paper, presentation and slideshow. The project will also help set him up to apply for either the Boren Scholarship or the Critical Language Scholarship in Indonesia. This study abroad opportunity would not only give him another avenue to pursue his study of radicalization and the Islamic State, but also to improve his language skills. He feels that both learning Malay and/or Arabic and studying the culture first-hand would be mutually beneficial, as he would prefer to not rely on a translator. "Languages are a necessity not only to get better research, but to also just understand cultures better," he says.
By his side since freshman year has been mentor Scott Gratson, director of the Communication Studies Program, who is advising Hernandez on this project. Hernandez says that Gratson has been an incredibly valuable resource for his work, constantly posing questions and exchanging opinions.
"It has been a pleasure to see Tommy grow and develop into the scholar that he has become," Gratson said in an email. "I have seen him in many leadership positions, and even more academic settings. He is a dedicated and fully engaged student, he always has been."
And that dedication is apparent: Hernandez has clearly devised a path for himself that will take him to Indonesia, the Army and graduate school, and eventually, the U.S. government.
"As his professor, director, and mentor, it has been nothing less than amazing to watch — and I fully realize that he is just getting started," said Gratson.