Why counter-narratives are not the best responses to terrorist propaganda
Challenges, risks and alternatives
Ann-Sophie Hemmingsen & Karin Ingrid Castro Møller
Counter-narratives or counter-propaganda are routinely suggested as responses to the vast amount of propaganda from groups such as Islamic State and al-Qaeda that is readily available online, and the idea of using counter-narratives as a way to prevent terrorism, extremism, and radicalisation is gaining momentum. International organisations such as the EU and UN are increasingly including counter-narratives in their Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) strategies, leading to a push for member states to do the same, in spite of a great deal of criticism and the lack of any actual evidence that counter-narratives are an effective method for such purposes.
Taking its point of departure in three new counter-propaganda initiatives introduced in the third Danish national action plan on countering and preventing radicalisation and extremism, this report explores the challenges related to using counter-propaganda that engage directly and confrontationally with a particular ideology within the Danish preventive framework in particular and in CVE strategies in general.
The report identifies numerous challenges including:
- Actual evidence that counter-narratives are an effective method of minimising the impact of narratives and of preventing acts of violence is lacking.
- Counter-narratives are in essence reactive; using them is therefore in practice a recognition of the terms laid down by the declared opponents. In being so, they may end up reinforcing the very narratives they are attempting to stifle.
- Confrontational counter-narratives, which engage directly with a narrative to expose, correct or ridicule it, run the risk of being automatically rejected.
- Broad counter-narrative campaigns are not necessary, as the propaganda of groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State only attracts few individuals, and addressing the many in an attempt to reach the few is a scattergun approach that carries the risk of unwanted or even counter-productive side effects.
- The lack of knowledge about why and how the narratives and propaganda of groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State attract audiences makes it difficult to construct attractive counter-narratives, even if the relevant audiences could be identified.
The report offers several recommendations including:
- Learn from experience with other types of preventive work that attempting to prevent future problems is accompanied by risks. Always weigh these risks and their probability against the expectable positive effects and their probability.
- Break down the ambitious project of preventing terrorism into manageable sub-projects, which have clearly identified audiences, sub-objectives, methods, designated actors, and that take into account the potential risks.
- Instead of attempting to counter extremist propaganda and its narratives by engaging with them, counter them by providing alternatives.
- In order to provide alternatives to individuals or groups that are already attracted to extremist narratives or propaganda, the grievances that the individual or group is currently seeking to address through the ideology must be identified. These may be foreign or domestic political grievances, individual or personal grievances, and may be real or perceived. On this basis, corresponding alternative ways of addressing them can be provided.
- Inspiration for providing ways of addressing individual and personal grievances may be found in the methods already employed in Denmark. Yet, there is also a need to develop societally acceptable ways of addressing foreign or domestic political grievances, which can serve as real alternatives to the ways presented by groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
- With regard to early prevention in the broader population, the focus should be on bolstering general resources through capacity-building and inclusion to avoid feelings of marginalisation and the polarisation of society and on addressing real social or individual issues that may in the long run leave individuals vulnerable to any risks, including but not limited to involvement in extremist milieus.
- On this general level, provide alternatives by facilitating open debates about difficult subjects, such as violent conflicts and international politics, where constructive and productive ways of engaging with them can be presented.