There has been a growing focus on using strategic communication to counter violent extremism. And, rightly so. Since propaganda – or deliberate and systematic communication that aims to persuade – is used to encourage violent extremism, it would only make sense that strategic and persuasive communication is also used in an attempt to discourage support of extremist activities. Communications alone, however, is not enough to effectively dissuade at-risk populations from pursuing violence, an extreme form of political confrontation. Sure, communications could lead a holder of such extreme views to a compromise if not peace, but only if a reasonably acceptable alternative is presented. A combination of understanding (what drives the target audience to violent extremism), provision of a viable alternative (to channel anger into positive action), and their persuasive presentation is required for an effective Countering Violent Extremism (CVE).

I Bet You Think This Message Is About You, Don’t You?

Thinking beyond the message can be quite the challenge in practice. All too often, the person wanting to communicate is too focused on what he or she wants to share, rather than what the audience needs to hear. It’s a problem with perspective – each person sees the world from their personal vantage point.

This self-centrism on the part of the communicator is common. It happens all the time in marketing – the professional sweat, blood and tears that go into building a business often prevent the owner from seeing things from her customer’s perspective. Instead, many business owners are eager to communicate everything they have to offer, and in the process fail to connect with potential clients.

In CVE, this self-centric messaging is exemplified in campaigns that ask people to “turn away” or “open your eyes”. These well-intended efforts tackle the issue from the perspective of the communicator – i.e. “please say no to violent extremism”. Such campaigns might be very moving for those who already agree with the content, but they do little to address the issues that cause the target audience to turn towards violent extremism in the first place. Without presenting an alternative outlet for the target audience to address perceived injustice or grievances, such calls to turn away from the lure of violent extremism will fall short. The challenge, of course, is that if the perceived injustice has its foundations in the material, socio-economic or political conditions of the aggrieved population, the alternative outlet cannot appear in the form of a flashy media campaign alone. The apparent disconnect between a counter-campaign and unchanging physical conditions will only serve one goal – further entrenchment of extremist views, turning at-risk audiences away from those who carry such a message.

Open Your Eyes aims to expose the reality of ISIS. Many of the project’s videos feature Muslims speaking about the ills of Daesh. While the initiative picks up on authentic voices, it speaks from the perspective of those who have already rejected violent extremism, and not to those who are leaning towards it. In many ways, the videos speak more to Western audiences in demonstrating that Islamist extremists are the aberration rather than the norm, as opposed to dissuading extremist sympathisers.

Similarly, the Extreme Dialogue initiative features first-person accounts on the devastation of violent extremism. These vignettes are undoubtedly moving and play an important role in providing context and insights into violent extremism – however, they are less likely to dissuade potential extremists already entrenched in their views.

A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action Please

If the aim is to prevent violent extremism, strategic communication efforts must go deeper. For communications-based measures to work, they must resonate so strongly with the target audience that the very consumption of such messaging sparks action. This can only be achieved by putting the needs of the target audience first.

There is a tendency in counter-propaganda initiatives to dissuade believers with facts. Unfortunately, countering persuasive messaging with information – regardless of its validity – is seldom likely to change perspectives. In fact, quite the opposite: when existing beliefs are challenged, they actually become more entrenched – it’s the result of a cognitive bias called the Backfire Effect.

Welcome to the Islamic State Land was a sardonic attempt to dissuade would-be jihadists put forward by the US State Department. The video sarcastically debunked Daesh propaganda with graphic evidence. The tone of the video is more likely to be viewed as condescending or belittling to a Daesh sympathiser, which will discourage that target audience from changing beliefs.

Emotional drivers are also commonly used in both counter/propaganda campaigns. To be effective, however, the messaging must appeal to the emotional state of the target audience. Reflecting the emotion currently felt by the target audience, for example, has a higher likelihood of succeeding in persuading them. It isn’t just a matter of making the target audience feel, but manipulating the audience’s current emotional state for a positive outcome.

Operation Christmas manipulated the sadness felt by many Colombian guerrillas during the holiday season, and spread a message to encourage demobilization. The campaign resulted in a 30 per cent increase in demobilization over the year before, directly correlated to the initiative.

In order to counter violent extremism, each strategic communication campaign must focus on that specific audience, and in particular the motivating factors causing people to take this path. While this will vary by individual case and type of violent extremism, a common driver is a person’s desire to fill a deep personal need. Fuelled by fear, anger or frustration, at-risk people turn to violent extremist organisations which are, in turn, extremely adept at manipulating vulnerable audiences by providing specific direction, purpose, and targets for expressing and venting frustration. In short, extremist organisations are providing unhappy people with an answer. To counter this process of need-fulfillment-driven recruitment, a viable, active alternative must be presented to at risk target audiences – something that goes beyond “please turn away”.

Green, Green Grass of Home

Governments are not well placed to offer a tangible alternative. Indeed, often the frustration experienced by at-risk individuals is embodied in a mistrust or resentment of the establishment and the social order it represents. Governments interested in CVE, however, can develop and foster the supporting network that could effectively provide an alternative. To compete, as it were, in engaging at-risk populations, such a network must be more sophisticated in recruitment and channelling of energies than the extremist groups. Messaging alone will not satisfy a deep personal need – a community offering direction, purpose and a structured means to channel energy into positive change are required as well.

There are many ways to find a higher purpose or support change. Such channels include non-profit and civil society organisations. Many of these organisations are volunteer-driven grassroots entities. As such, they lack the strategic communications skills to convey what active change they might already be achieving on the ground. Unlike violent extremist groups, however, these peaceful organisations are not adept at recruitment and indoctrination. That doesn’t mean they cannot offer an alternative, but that they will need support, first in seeing their potential as being a conduit for otherwise disenfranchised people to channel their energies for positive, tangible change, and second, communicating this option in a way that can lure at-risk audiences to a better choice.

A first step in developing a coordinated approach to CVE might be to establish and foster a network of such civil society organisations that can offer an alternative outlet for the anger or frustration an at-risk target population is experiencing. Such groups must have a visible and quantifiable impact on the lives of beneficiaries. For example, if an at-risk individual were turning towards violent extremism because of economic inequality, he or she would be best paired with an organisation that works on the ground to alleviate poverty as an alternative. The key here is that at-risk people are able to find a means to actively combat perceived injustice, focusing on bringing about positive change through peaceful means, rather than through violence. To ensure that civil society organisations can act as this alternative, they will need support and training on issues such as recruitment and de-radicalization. In other words, these organisations must be primed to handle the redirection of at-risk populations and prepared to channel this energy.

It should be noted, however, that ideal organisations might not be aware or accustomed to pursuing funding through grant programs or RFPs and might need to be sought out directly, rather than “fished” through an open call process.

With a network primed, strategic communications can be levered to draw at-risk populations to this alternative. Messaging that speaks to the target audience’s current emotional state, offering a message of how perceived injustices can be righted through the alternative channels would draw at-risk individuals to the network.

Touching Me, Touching You

Fortunately, the Internet is making it easier to reach at-risk populations, thus facilitating possible intervention. Some initiatives have experimented with such programmatic advertising.

Facebook, Twitter and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, have been supporting initiatives to counter violent extremism. These networks are perfectly placed for delivering targeted messaging. Social network advertising platforms enable communicators to narrowly define target audiences, not just by demographics, but also psychographics. Facebook, for example, enables the targeting of ad placement down to job titles or employer names, not to mention interests and in some cases political leaning. This means that based on a person’s online activities, it is possible to reach very specific target markets.

With support from Facebook, the initiative Average Mohamed targeted Somali teens living in the U.S. The project’s five animated videos aimed to discredit Islamist extremists. Given the videos had collectively 35,458 views and the estimated population of people born in Somalia living in the U.S. is 76,205, the campaign could be considered successful in terms of viewership – particularly given the quality of production.

The trick is to provide the right kind of content, at the right time, via the right channel. The ideal message should be framed within the existing perspective of the target audience, with an appeal for action that directly addresses their current emotional state, connected back to a support network that can connect them with a greater purpose and channel for their energy.

Effective strategic communications, at least in the context of countering violent extremism, must be focused on outcome, rather than just message, and to that end, ensuring the mechanisms are there to help lead at-risk people away from radicalization. It is the proverbial equivalent of putting your money where your mouth is.

About Author

La Generalista is the online identity of Alicia Wanless – a researcher and practitioner of strategic communications for social change in a Digital Age. Alicia is the director of the Partnership for Countering Influence Operations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. With a growing international multi-stakeholder community, the Partnership aims to foster evidence-based policymaking to counter threats within the information environment. Wanless is currently a PhD Researcher at King’s College London exploring how the information environment can be studied in similar ways to the physical environment. She is also a pre-doctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, and was a tech advisor to Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder. Her work has been featured in Lawfare, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, and CBC.

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