It’s been a busy year for counter terrorist narrative watchers. Since we last checked in, the State Department launched a peer-to-peer program challenging extremism, Facebook is working with civil society organizations to push back on hate, the Senate approved three bills fighting online terrorist recruitment, Secretary Kerry met with Hollywood executives to discuss countering terrorist narratives, and the Department of Justice hosted a meeting with tech executives, entertainment industry leaders, other government agencies, and the media on the topic. Even the FBI got in on the action, shrewdly finding a way to combine play-time with work-time. Countering terrorist narratives is the new black. Given the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s robust presence online, the desire to do something is understandable. But the majority of these efforts are premised on false assumptions and targeted at the wrong audience.
To understand why, let’s take a quick look at what we know: The Islamic State has an established communications strategy, cemented effectively through personalized online and offline outreach. It draws on a variety of themes and grievances to try and appeal to a wide swath of people. And appeal it does, though its numbers are smaller than the media would have you believe. The motivations of those drawn to the Islamic State are as varied as the countries from where they come but one thing they usually have in common is a peer network that either introduced them to extremist elements or affirms and reinforces their beliefs.
This brief summary is not meant to minimize the nuanced process of recruitment and radicalization to violence, but rather to highlight the elements that are important to keep in mind when developing counter-narratives: personalized outreach, an understanding of grievances and motivations, and peer networks. Without full consideration of each element, counter-narratives are not likely to be successful, for simple psychological reasons I discussed in a previous article at War on the Rocks.
But let’s not speak in theoretical terms. A closer look will reveal where current efforts are falling short.
The State Department, in partnership with other government agencies, launched the Peer-to-Peer (P2P) Challenging Extremism program in 2015 to support university students in their efforts to create social media campaigns that counter the terrorist narrative. The initiative engages university students both in the United States and abroad who partake in the exercise for a grade in class. Proponents of the project justify it on the grounds that a “university-centric marketing campaign” has the best shot of reaching those “vulnerable to recruitment” and that the peer-to-peer nature of the campaigns make such vulnerable audiences feel “less isolated and part of a community.” Previous entries include an app that offers positive daily messages about Islam and connects young Muslims, a campaign that aims to correct misperceptions of Islam as a violent religion, a platform aimed at isolated gamers who may be susceptible to recruitment, and an app that allows people to combine a photo of themselves with an image of an ancient artifact destroyed by the Islamic State.
As general social media campaigns, these ideas are catchy and interesting. As counter terrorist narratives aimed at reducing the appeal of the Islamic State and other violent extremist groups, they’re severely lacking. It is unclear how they address the grievances and motivations of those who may be susceptible to the Islamic State or other violent extremist groups recruitment, or even that they understand what those drivers are. Even if one were to accept the premise that these initiatives provide a compelling counter-narrative, it’s uncertain how such initiatives are even meant to reach the target audience. Why would a “vulnerable” individual engage with such apps or websites and how would they even become aware of them to begin with?
A related initiative from Facebook is providing free advertising for users who speak out against violent extremist narratives online through Facebook postings, whether by using photos, videos, or text. The initiative appears aimed at extremism across the ideological spectrum and is premised on the idea that “positivity and goodwill can deter terrorist recruitment online.” Facebook’s leadership has elaborated on their thinking, pointing to an instance where an anti-Nazi group in Germany attacked the Facebook page of a neo-Nazi group by liking its page and flooding it with messages of tolerance and hope.
Though well-intentioned, such an exercise does little to deter an extremist mindset. For starters, any sympathizers seeking out a neo-Nazi website or Facebook page are doing so for a reason — they want to be among their in-group peers. An attack on that community, positive though it may be, only bonds extremist supporters closer together as they reinforce each other’s beliefs. So though Facebook may believe that the “best antidote to bad speech is good speech, and the best antidote to hate is tolerance,” research shows otherwise. To have a chance at changing someone’s mind, popular opinion can help but what’s even more key is the back-and-forth engagement. Throwing out statements of positivity in a sea of mixed opinions without taking the time to engage someone is as useful as screaming into a void.
The theory of change put forth by these efforts is misguided and uninformed. In addition to issues discussed already, too many of these campaigns end up being aimed at or seen by an audience that already opposes violent extremism. And again, there appears to be a naive misconception that those susceptible to recruitment and radicalization will seek out counter-narrative initiatives of their own accord. It should go without saying that they will not. It is incumbent on counter-narrative creators to determine how they will reach those they need to convince.
One way to think about this is to use case studies of individuals who have been recruited by the Islamic State. For example, the story of the Bethnal Green girls, the three teenage friends from London who left to join the Islamic State, has been relatively well-documented. If one were to retrace the months or even years leading up to their departure to Syria while applying some of the aforementioned counter-narrative initiatives, what would the intervention or engagement points be? How and when might the girls have seen other general counter-extremist narratives? Most importantly, how might they have responded?
Violent extremist messaging resonates with certain individuals because it emphasizes narratives that align with personal experiences. So, at their core, counter-narrative efforts are attempting to disabuse individuals of certain feelings and perceptions they’ve developed based on those personal experiences, or the experiences of those with whom they feel kinship. At the risk of stating the obvious, that is difficult work.
But there are ways to push back against violent extremist messaging that have potential. These ideas invoke understanding of the biggest factor in recruitment and radicalization to violence: human vulnerability. Equally important, they are long-term strategies that acknowledge a more realistic timeline regarding the processes by which ideas and perceptions form and solidify. They may not necessarily be considered counter-narratives in the manner that countering violent extremism (CVE) practitioners understand the concept, but they do promote new narratives grounded in empathy and support. Most notably, evidence has shown that they produce significant results towards influencing perceptions. The following are examples of efforts that merit further consideration:
1. Personal outreach. Mimicking efforts by the Islamic State, personal engagement of individuals expressing or exploring support for violent extremists allows such individuals to air their grievances in an empathetic space while allowing for the tailored back-and-forth necessary for changing minds (or at least attempting to do so). Former violent extremists are a natural fit for the role of intervenor, though trained peers from similar backgrounds could be helpful as well. The London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue undertook such a project with modestly positive results and has offered helpful guidelines for replicating and scaling similar initiatives.
2. Building the capacity of local media. There exists increasing evidence that media can play an important role in changing societal beliefs over time, especially through the production of context-specific dramas and other entertainment that highlight the cost of tensions, intolerance, and violence. Separately, there is evidence that sustained media attention on the actions of violent extremist groups can drive recruitment or further attacks. Considered together, the research underscores the important role media organizations play in producing narratives that influence perceptions. Initiatives to build the capacity of local media can offer training on the implications of inadvertently favorable reporting on violence, as well as support for producing compelling entertainment that resonates with local populations and grapples with the same grievances they face in reality. To be fully effective, such support must be accompanied by community and in-person outreach to build on the fictional themes addressed and to address the non-fiction concerns of the community.
3. Hotlines and assistance centers. Much to the chagrin of parents, continuous research shows that peers are the group most likely to notice signs of recruitment and radicalization to violence in their friends. Unfortunately, peers may be reluctant to act on information due to denial, concerns over loyalty, or unfamiliarity with radicalization. Public awareness campaigns on the dangers of violent extremism might be helpful, especially if they’re implemented through schools or targeted at youth in settings where they’re most likely to see them (commercials before a movie in the theater, public service announcements on public transit). Such campaigns would ultimately prove more useful, though, if paired with information on hotlines or text services to report concerns anonymously. Hotlines can be operated by centers focused on detecting and intervening in recruitment and radicalization independent of law enforcement, an ideal environment that allows trained staff to work with at-risk individuals before they commit any prosecutable offenses. Marketing efforts to raise awareness of hotlines must emphasize their anonymity and independence from law enforcement to overcome the reticence in reporting a loved one.
These ideas don’t have the instantaneous sex appeal of large-scale productions involving Hollywood or Madison Avenue, but they are serious and practical efforts designed to accomplish the foremost goal of CVE efforts: diminish and disrupt the appeal of violent extremist groups like the Islamic State. Until other counter-narrative efforts take that appeal seriously, they will continue to join the infamous ranks of ill-conceived failed counter campaigns.
Christina Nemr spent five years working on CVE in the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism. She holds a Master’s degree in Forensic Psychology with a focus on motivations to commit violence. She currently advises on CVE for public and private entities.