Comment & analysis

A war of words: why counter-messaging to prevent ‘violent extremism’ is counter-productive

9 July 2019 Kloé Tricot O’Farrell A war of words: why counter-messaging to prevent ‘violent extremism’ is counter-productive

Many governments have stepped up efforts to counter what they see as ‘violent extremism’ in their countries. Kloé Tricot O’Farrell argues that these ‘counter-messaging’ campaigns can fuel isolation and discontent.

In many countries where there are concerns around terror attacks or recruitment into violent groups, governments are responding with campaigns that aim to counter the messages of ‘violent extremist’ or ‘radical’ groups. Campaigns tend to focus on discrediting violent groups’ propaganda by exposing how dangerous war-affected contexts actually are, educating people about the ‘right’ ways to interpret and practise Islam – where ‘religious illiteracy’ is considered a problem – or presenting ‘violent extremist’ groups as ‘foreign’ actors seeking to undermine national security and people’s way of life. Some campaigns also seek to inform people about the legal consequences of their actions, for instance by distributing leaflets that include information on penalties or jail time.

From Kyrgyzstan to Kenya and Tajikistan to Tunisia, counter-messaging is being rolled out – but why has it become so popular? First, it can appear easy to implement. You develop messages, share them widely – on social media in particular – and hope they will reach and resonate with their intended targets. ‘Violent extremism’ tends to be blamed on individuals that have been brainwashed by unscrupulous recruiters. As such, counter-messaging offers a way to ‘educate’ people by providing them with the ‘right’ information. For governments, counter-messaging campaigns also give the impression that they are doing something to address threats to their countries’ security (regardless of whether that threat is inflated). For instance, at an event on counter-messaging I attended last year, an official from Kyrgyzstan suggested that governments should match the number of videos released by the Islamic State, in order to counter its propaganda.

In spite of their popularity, counter or alternative messaging campaigns to ‘counter/prevent violent extremism’ (C/PVE) are generally ineffective, and can do more harm than good by dismissing or actually reinforcing the drivers of violence – for instance, by alienating particular groups or spreading mistrust. Research into the issue highlights that ‘there is little evidence to support the effectiveness of counter-narratives’ and questions ‘the extent to which they affect their target audiences’. Even the relationship between viewing ‘extremist’ content and engaging in violence ‘is not clear’.

Hitting the wrong note: what’s wrong with counter-messaging campaigns?

Given the range of complex factors that can drive people to support violent groups, developing messages that will resonate is always going to be difficult. In Kyrgyzstan, we have seen that C/PVE activities aren’t always based on a nuanced understanding of the diverse motives and needs of the people they are trying to reach. Too often, they focus on the ‘ideology of extremism’, blaming recruitment on religious ‘radicalisation’. This ignores the fact that although the propaganda of violent groups can appear ideological, recruitment does not rely on religious arguments alone. It feeds on isolation and marginalisation, discontent fuelled by injustice and corruption, trauma and exposure to violence, and feelings of victimhood, powerlessness and purposelessness.

Saferworld’s global research on the impact of counter-terror and C/PVE has shown that in many countries, people feel authorities are at best unable or at worst unwilling to address their problems, and that poor or abusive governance is an important factor driving violence. This explains why some people turn to religious organisations, criminal enterprises and gangs, or to politically motivated armed groups that they may see as more legitimate and better able to offer protection, justice, services, livelihoods, and a sense of identity, belonging and purpose. When efforts to prevent people from joining violent groups neglect these factors, they are highly likely to fail.

By focusing on telling people what they should or shouldn’t do, or what they should or shouldn’t believe in, counter-messaging campaigns may actually lead people to dig their heels in and defend their positions. Similarly, banning content and limiting freedom of expression can create anger among those who feel they are being unjustly targeted.

The messages in C/PVE campaigns can also be stigmatising and can polarise opinions and create divisions. Apart from driving dissenting views underground, they can fuel hatred and suspicion towards those with different views. They can also further alienate communities that may already feel marginalised, especially when ‘violent extremism’ is associated with particular religious or ethnic minorities. This is also the case for young people who are both instrumentalised to counter or prevent ‘violent extremism’ and targeted by counter-messaging campaigns. In interviews for our research in Tunisia, we heard how young people find C/PVE counter-messaging to be alienating and unconvincing.

Counter-terror or C/PVE campaigns can also escalate abuses by creating an enabling context for violence against minority groups. For instance, the labelling of members of the indigenous Mapuche community – fighting for their land rights in Chile – as ‘terrorists’ has led to systemic abuse by the state and its security forces. Similar concerns are important in places such as Mali, where military counter-terror and C/PVE campaigns are taking place in a context riven by growing inter-ethnic tensions and violence. The ‘war on terror’ has also led to rising Islamophobia in many countries, such as in the US and the UK.

The methods used by many counter-messaging campaigns also raise concerns. One of the main assumptions that underpins campaigns – that recruitment happens through online propaganda – has been questioned by research highlighting that it mostly happens through access to real-life social networks.

Counter-messaging also tends to rely on civil society organisations and leaders – which are seen as credible messengers or influencers – regardless of the position this puts them in. Asking these organisations to share C/PVE messages that meet national or international security objectives can put them and their staff at risk, especially in places with abusive governments and limited civil society space. Pushing civil society organisations that oppose violent movements into the uncomfortable position of having to adopt the views of authorities with highly dubious human rights records can hamper the efforts of those who believe that the path to peace lies in promoting better governance. C/PVE can also cause harm when carried out by organisations that aren’t equipped to analyse and carefully navigate complex conflict dynamics.

Finally, the assumption that counter-messaging is sustainable is flawed. Even if the right messages reach the right people, it ultimately encourages a war of words, where each side comes up with new and creative arguments to win people over. Not only is this approach simplistic, but responding to violent groups’ propaganda and developing messages that contradict theirs may actually enable these groups to control the debate and acquire greater legitimacy. Researchers also stress that using linguistic frames set by violent groups can actually reinforce those frames instead of weakening them.

Words alone aren’t enough

Even positive messages of peace and tolerance can still prove a costly distraction from what is actually needed – addressing people’s needs and changing people’s lives. As one researcher said: ‘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.’ To be effective, those looking to build peace and stability need to understand the broad range of negative behaviours, attitudes and structures that are driving conflict and violence. Unless people’s grievances are taken seriously, unless the focus is on changing people’s lives for the better, and unless all drivers of conflict and violence (and not just the behaviour and attitudes of groups labelled as ‘radicals’, ‘terrorists’ or ‘extremists’) are addressed, the situation is not going to change.

When people feel voiceless and powerless, they need to have more opportunity to express their perspectives, concerns and needs safely and on their own terms. Interventions should focus on creating opportunities for people to engage in genuine dialogue, and should encourage authorities to listen and engage meaningfully with citizens.  

Any information shared publicly should be trustworthy, objective and grounded in evidence. It should not be biased, clouded in prejudice or sensationalist. It should be for the benefit of the people, not to control them. Peace education and messages on tolerance and inclusion are invaluable, but will do little if people don’t see them work in practice. We know what is needed to build peaceful and stable societies – and words alone aren’t going to get us there.