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Serious doubts persist about the effectiveness of media efforts to counter the narrative of violent extremism.
Communications-based interventions are a routine fixture of programmes designed to prevent and counter violent extremism (P/CVE), but the author’s latest paper for the Prevention Project exposes clear theoretical and empirical shortcomings that need to be addressed.
P/CVE remains contested and controversial. This is, in part, due to a dearth of material demonstrating its effectiveness. Accordingly, the Norwegian government commissioned the Prevention Project to take stock of existing knowledge and identify ‘what does and does not work’ in preventing violent extremism. Under this project, RUSI’s Terrorism and Conflict group conducted an extensive data search to capture the current evidence base in as much detail as possible. Over 500 documents – from peer-reviewed studies and programme evaluations to policy briefs and grey literature (content produced outside traditional commercial and academic publishing channels) – were collected, providing a basis for our analysis of various P/CVE intervention types.
This included ‘P/CVE communications’, a broad category featuring:
- Counternarratives: Direct, responsive and often confrontational efforts to deconstruct and demystify extremist messaging through ideology, logic, fact or humour.
- Alternative narratives: Positive stories that ‘undercut violent extremist narratives by focusing on what we are for rather than against’.
- Strategic communications: ‘An organisation’s use of the full range of communication channels to achieve a strategic objective’.
Recognising that terrorism ‘is not simply violence but communication’, such activities have become a mainstay of preventive programming. However, they also benefit from a widespread demand for seemingly convenient solutions that can be quickly expanded and quantified, allowing stakeholders to not only ‘do something’ but to be seen doing something. A flourishing industry has since proliferated, pumping out on- and offline content in various hues to disrupt, refute or outcompete extremist discourse.
Unsurprisingly, P/CVE communications therefore comprised the largest tranche of studies collated during the Prevention Project. Despite its bulk, the author’s latest paper argues that the literature suffers from both limited scope and depth – a significant concern given the volume of communications-based interventions conducted in the UK and abroad.
For a start, the diverse range of activities and modalities incorporated under this category was largely neglected due to a reductive preoccupation with counternarratives (as defined above). Of the 139 papers relevant for P/CVE communications, 47% focused on counternarratives exclusively, and a further 28% integrated them as the principal component in a broader package of initiatives. Likewise, papers tended to recycle a relatively small cluster of case studies when analysing project delivery and results, and were remarkably insular, with limited reference to lessons from other disciplines like advertising, communication studies, criminology, cyber security, literary studies, psychology or theology. Consequentially, analysis of P/CVE communications appeared somewhat siloed and at risk of having to constantly ‘reinvent the wheel’.
This coincided with a lack of depth. The literature revealed a paucity of empirical evidence documenting the effectiveness of interventions, and there was little in the way of longitudinal analysis to track influence and sustainability over time. Many studies simply enumerated output-level findings, offering procedural accounts of implementation, or, in the case of online projects, resorting to ‘vanity metrics’ such as reach, views or shares, which do not necessarily capture ‘real’ cognitive or behavioural shifts in audiences. Such problems are, in many respects, symptomatic of the wider P/CVE space, where stakeholders have struggled to build rigorous, cost-effective monitoring and evaluation systems. Subsequently, efforts to measure the impact of activities are often unverified or inconclusive, leaving assessments dependent on process evaluations, anecdotal observation and inductive leaps.
Even alternative narratives – widely considered more effective than conventional counternarratives – presented scant data to document their successes. While the few examples offered in the literature appear encouraging, these were not necessarily commensurate with the volume of recommendations couching such approaches as ‘best practice’.
Numerous P/CVE communications programmes also rely on assumption-based logics rather than a fully articulated theory, creating inconsistencies and shortfalls that disrupt their efficacy. A presumed linearity between the consumption of ‘radical’ content and the use of violence has long been disputed, with research increasingly distinguishing cognitive from behavioural extremism, and recognising radicalisation and recruitment as highly variegated processes. Indoctrination, for instance, can be retrospective. Some recruits subscribe to a new ideological outlook after they have joined a terrorist group and/or engaged in violence, with conversion leveraged to justify past actions. Yet, many communications-based interventions continue to prioritise counter-ideological approaches, and potentially overlook the complex mix of factors that typically facilitate and incentivise VE membership.
Additionally, they may miss the dynamics that imbue messages with meaning and cultivate the appeal of extremist material in the first place. Exposure is not necessarily synonymous with persuasion: rather than simply ‘triggering’ automatic behavioural change in recipients, the influence of narratives is often determined by a broader process of socialisation, with research emphasising the role of on- and offline social networks in encouraging greater receptivity to terrorist propaganda. The Islamic State, for example, regularly exploits affective bonds, social encapsulation and friendships to circulate and amplify their script. In contrast, counter-messaging sometimes either neglects these important social-psychological considerations or does little to ‘off-set or replace’ the relationships that exist independent of discursive content but condition its resonance.
In short, P/CVE communications projects have significant problems, but none of these critiques are novel. While unverified assumptions and theoretical constraints are widely acknowledged in the literature, they consistently influence and underpin many interventions, contributing towards a degree of stagnation in the field. Although individual projects may display creativity and experimentation, there is a nagging propensity to re-identify the same lessons over again rather than apply this learning in practice.
Of course, it is not all doom and gloom. Anecdotal evidence suggests programmes that respond to the social configurations underpinning communication show promise, especially when mediated with one-to-one discussions. Employing communications strategically and building integrative interventions that substantiate messages through supplementary programming can also generate (some tentative) traction over time. Similarly, developing comprehensive support structures, cultivating trust and understanding the value of ‘process-oriented’ approaches – the benefits participants receive from the ‘journey’ itself – are all important ingredients.
However, they remain under-resourced and under-analysed, leading to perhaps the most glaring omission in the literature: how to sustain and scale the labour-intensive, lengthy and highly tailored initiatives that actually appear effective, especially when they are usually delivered through a series of ad hoc pilot schemes.
In his testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee in the US House of Representatives, RUSI Associate Fellow Peter Neumann lamented that ‘even if we found the perfect message [and] the perfect messenger … it would still be a drop in the ocean’. While he was primarily referring to online content, the sentiment cuts across all strands of P/CVE communications. Expanding outreach is essential, and yet there is almost no research on how to achieve this while maintaining the personalised engagement integral to trust and relationship building.
Such problems are not necessarily the fault of practitioners – robust monitoring and evaluation is expensive and time consuming. The field is steeped in guidance and instruction manuals to strengthen these approaches on a technical level, but they are often beyond the financial capabilities of many small-scale projects. Likewise, the emphasis on outputs also stems from quantifying and packaging interventions to satisfy donor expectations and/or align with their monitoring regimes. In this context, the importance of ‘process’ may either be invisible or marginalised, potentially underplaying the effectiveness of P/CVE activities. Finally, the lack of publicly accessible evaluation material could offer a skewed or unfair snapshot of how communications-based initiatives actually perform. This is an inherent methodological limitation of the Prevention Project, and findings were caveated to reflect the reality that full details of initiatives are not always publicised to help protect sensitive data. Calls for greater information sharing, transparency and collaboration are undoubtedly justified – only 24% of documents collected for P/CVE communications could be considered programme evaluations – but there are legitimate reasons why some material remains confidential.
Nevertheless, certain gaps in the literary landscape of P/CVE communications could and should be immediately addressed. For example, more analysis of existing interventions is needed alongside a greater interrogation of how contextual and social dynamics frame P/CVE outreach. Second, projects must move beyond a narrow fixation on counternarratives and encourage a focus on holistic communications activities. They should also integrate theoretical, empirical and operational lessons from related fields and disciplines, and investigate how highly tailored interventions can either be scaled up or better synchronised with complementary projects.
These prescriptions are both feasible and important: they may not resolve the problems impeding P/CVE communications, but they can push this staple feature of preventive programming in a better direction.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Terrorism and Conflict