When members of the exclusively male right-wing group known as the Proud Boys are talking amongst themselves in obscure online forums, there is a good chance that a woman named Emily Kaufman ’16 (CLAS) is watching them.
A proud Husky alumna, Kaufman works as an investigative researcher with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. A leading authority on hate, extremism, antisemitism and terrorism, the center’s researchers, including Kaufman, monitor the online presence of groups and organizations in order to expose and disrupt them, to educate law enforcement about the workings and actions of the groups, and to help the public identify and deal with extremist threats.
Kaufman herself is responsible for watching the online actions and interactions of five different groups, organizations, or movements. Day in and out, she logs into an ever-changing assortment of online platforms – sites known for the kind of low or no-moderation access that attracts the worst that the internet has to offer – in order to build her expert knowledge of the groups.
And, to spot trouble, hopefully before it happens.
“History has proven that violence is core to right-wing extremist group activity in the United States,” she says. “The Proud Boys, a group that I monitor, are quite willing to engage with their fists – violence is an expression of their ideology. When you look at another disparate movement, such as neo-Nazi accelerationists, adherents embrace violence and militancy. So, it’s imperative that we remain vigilant in monitoring, exposing, and disrupting these bad actors whose ideology can often manifest into real-life violence.”
The world was witness to that violence on January 6, 2021, when violent insurrectionists – including known members of the Proud Boys – stormed the U.S. Capitol Building, when what began as rhetoric escalated into violence.
The inherent power of language is one factor that has drawn Kaufman to what she calls her “dream job” with the ADL.
“From my time at UConn, having had amazing experiences of historically seeing this language – dangerous language – and what it can lead to, I think looking into language and the actions of these groups, and looking at the climate of increasingly violent rhetoric across our society, is one of the most important things that anyone could be doing,” Kaufman says.
Kaufman came to UConn as part of the inaugural cohort of Human Rights majors through UConn’s Human Rights Institute (HRI) ; she double majored in Cognitive Sciences to further her understanding of language’s power.
“I think I’ve always really been inspired by people around me who stood up to hate,” she says, “and I had just this natural interest in language – how language can be used in really positive ways to uplift people, but also how dangerous language and rhetoric can be. I’ve always been really interested in this phenomenon.”
As an undergraduate, she studied abroad in South Africa with support from a U.S. State Department Gilman Scholarship and funding from HRI, and spent her time there with an HIV/AIDS advocacy organization, learning from anti-apartheid activists and getting an introduction to grassroots mobilizing. She attended international conferences, and worked with organizations that promote human rights in business practices, meeting with global human rights leaders as she sought out her own place in the human rights landscape.
There’s an amazing community of people at the Human Rights Institute who are so dedicated to fighting injustice in a variety of ways. — Emily Kaufman '16
After graduating in 2016, Kaufman traveled to The Netherlands for an eight-month-long HRI fellowship with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague. While there, she assisted prosecutors with research in the trial of Ratko Mladic – also known as “the butcher of Bosnia” – which was the final trial of a tribunal that lasted from 1993 to 2017.
“I was there at the culmination of the trial,” she says, “and I was immersed in this really amazing and powerful experience of doing research leading up to the final trial brief and closing arguments.”
She then worked for a non-governmental organization in Somalia, helping to establish the first women’s university in the autonomous region of Somaliland, before returning to UConn to help in the creation of the Robert J. Donia Collection – one of the first major digital war crimes archives in existence – which is a major component of the ICTY Digital Archive Project maintained by UConn’s Dodd Human Rights Impact.
Her interest in language then took her to the London School of Economics, where she was drawn to a course offering on domestic terror threats in the United States. She completed a Master of Science in Conflict Studies in London, earning the program’s equivalent of a valedictorian’s recognition, before settling in Seattle to work for the ADL.
“I was really interested in applying this work to real life, and then this opportunity at the Anti-Defamation League came up in their Center on Extremism, which really focuses on examining this language in real time on a daily basis,” Kaufman says. “And it’s truly at the forefront of shedding a light on and disrupting this kind of language and action online. This role is really, really a dream job, and I feel very fortunate to get a chance to work with really smart and talented people every day.”
It’s the team aspect, she says, in addition to the real-world impact of the work that has helped her cope while treading through some of the most ugly and repugnant corners of the internet.
“Knowing personally that what you’re doing can actually be helpful to community members – when you’re providing your response, when you’re writing something that is bringing a new issue to light, I think that’s kind of the biggest motivating factor,” says Kaufman. “And also, having this amazing team of people, who are really well connected with each other and really supportive, I think that’s key. And there’s not a lot of time to dwell on what you’re looking at, because things move so quickly.”
She’s also motivated by the impact of antisemitism in her own family and a drive to understand how extremists get to the point of committing hateful acts.
“I’d heard a lot about my dad’s experiences with antisemitism growing up, and I saw how that really shaped him as a person,” she says. “It made me really sad just to think about that, how people can have these preconceived notions and how those notions get passed down and can lead to discrimination and hate for generations to come. So, I think there was this personal interest in doing this kind of work as well.”
Kaufman credits her experiences as a student at UConn, and the support she received from her faculty and mentors, for helping her find her place in the world of human rights.
“There’s an amazing community of people at the Human Rights Institute who are so dedicated to fighting injustice in a variety of ways, and I think I was just searching for the way that I could be the most helpful,” she says. “Having someone who believes in what you want to do and is willing to go to bat for you and help you find opportunities and be really supportive was really just an amazing part of my University experience.”
She continues, “There have just been so many wonderful things that have come out of my time at UConn that I think enable me to do the work that I do now, and I’m so grateful. I mean, really, it’s a world-class program, and a world-class education.”