Changing the Narrative: Countering Violent Extremist Propaganda

Violent extremists of all stripes have become increasingly adept at using the internet and social media to propagate their ideologies and radicalize and recruit a generation that has grown up online. Once a promising space for democratic dialogue and organization, the internet and social media platforms are increasingly being used to facilitate the spread of hateful ideologies and instigate violence. Although they represent only a tiny fraction of internet and social media users, violent extremists have used sensational imagery to capture the public’s attention and disproportionately dominate the online marketplace of ideas. Traditional media have compounded the problem by hyping violent extremists’ internet prowess and “sophisticated” use of social media and airing their graphic promotional videos.

Since the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2178 (on threats to international peace caused by terrorist organizations) last September, there has been a flurry of activity around countering violent extremism (CVE). Much of that effort has been focused on discrediting and delegitimizing the ideology that drives violent extremism and mobilizes a steady stream of recruits to extremist causes. The White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, subsequent regional summits, the emergence of the UAE-based Sawab Center, a multinational communications hub created to confront terrorist propaganda online, are all evidence of the increased focus on this challenge.

Yet, effectively contesting the radicalization and recruitment efforts of violent extremists remains a persistent challenge. As the international community approaches the one-year anniversary of Resolution 2178, it is important to take a closer look at some of the factors that limit the efficacy of counter-messaging efforts and what can be done about them.

  • CVE efforts broadly suffer from an enthusiasm gap. Polls have consistently shown overwhelming majorities of respondents have unfavorable views of extremist groups. However, activating this “silent majority” is difficult. Most people do not perceive combatting extremist ideologies as being relevant to them, and therefore, are not willing to devote significant time or resources to counter this threat. Efforts that seek to mobilize youth leaders, former extremists and survivors, women, and tech-savvy youth need to be scaled up significantly to shift the momentum away from violent extremists who have no shortage of ardent supporters willing to amplify their messages.
  • Credible messengers often lack the technical skills, capacity, and resources to develop emotionally appealing content with high production quality, package their products in a way that will resonate with target audiences, and promote and distribute the content through channels that will allow them to reach those audiences. Decentralized attempts to build the capacity of credible messengers through tech camps, hackathons, and training of faith leaders and civil society are a good start. However, these efforts need to be expanded rapidly, with the support of the private sector, in order to connect credible messengers with the technical expertise and resources they need to produce emotive content that will effectively challenge extremists’ propaganda and put them on the defensive.
  • Those opposed to violent extremism have had a difficult time crafting a message that projects not just what they are against, but what they are for. This message needs to not only be emotionally captivating but also give young people alternative courses of action they can take to channel their energy, anger, grievances, and desire to be a part of something bigger and meaningful into something positive. These positive messages – and actions – need to be tailored to the ambitions and grievances unique to the local environment.
  • Internet and social media users are not attuned and do not have the tools to see through extremist propaganda. Unlike with child pornography and privacy issues, there are very few efforts underway to help young people, in particular, recognize extremists’ online overtures and deconstruct their messages. Much more needs to be done in classrooms, community centers, and homes to improve digital safety and raise awareness of extremists’ efforts to radicalize and recruit online.
  • A lot of attention has been paid, rightfully, to extremists’ use of social media. However, extremists are also propagating their messages on other mediums like satellite TV, radio, and print, where many people still get their news and information. In addition to increasing compelling content for social media, additional resources must be invested in countering extremists’ narratives via traditional media outlets.
  • Counter-messaging programming to date has largely been based on anecdotal evidence and instinct. A lot of progress has been made mapping and understanding the content of extremists’ propaganda and how those messages are being produced and distributed. But very little investment has been made in research, data analytics, and monitoring and evaluation to understand what works and what does not in countering those messages. New and innovative approaches to measuring the impact of counter-narratives must be developed in order to move the field forward and regain the advantage in the messaging space.
  • While the internet and social media play an important facilitation and amplification role for violent extremists’ messages, equally important is the direct, intensive one-on-one recruitment efforts that unfold on and offline. Individuals rarely graduate from passively consuming propaganda to actively engaging in an extremist cause without direct engagement from a third party. These extremist recruiters provide the personal touch, showering potential recruits with attention and supplying critical information about how to materially contribute to the extremists’ cause. To effectively combat this approach, more credible actors will need to get involved and better referral systems will need to be put in place so that they can follow up individually with those most at-risk and help deconstruct and discredit extremists’ arguments, point by point.
  • Finally, counter-messaging never happens in a vacuum. The U.S. Government has internalized that it is not often the most credible messenger to reach at-risk audiences. Yet, many of its partners in this effort also face critical legitimacy gaps with their citizens because of endemic corruption, abysmal records on human rights, severe repression, and overly securitized approaches to CVE. The U.S. Government will have to address head-on the underlying political grievances that are fueling extremism, including in close allies, if it is to make a dent in this global contagion.

Shannon N. Green is a senior fellow and codirector of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Shannon N. Green