Review of programs to counter narratives of violent extremism

Violence Information technology Great Britain
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This report examines attempts to challenge extremist and violent extremist messages, whether directly or indirectly, through a range of online and offline means.

Executive summmary

It is now recognised that violent extremists have made effective use of the Internet and social media to advance their aims, whether through engagement, propaganda, radicalisation or recruitment. While the quality of their output varies, a growing proportion is professional, well produced, contains compelling messages and is delivered by charismatic individuals. In short, it appeals to the new YouTube generation, which expects high-end products that are well-timed and effective. These extremist groups and networks are also transitioning from their own standalone websites and forums towards social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, to take their messages to a much wider audience.

Governments are interested in understanding what can be done to counter this content, both illegal and legal, which can incite or glamorise the use of violence. Much of the emphasis to date has been placed on restrictive measures, such as takedowns and filtering. While it is important for governments to enforce the law – and be seen to be doing so – there are severe limitations on the effectiveness of this response, given the speed with which new data is uploaded and the limited capacity of law enforcement agencies.

More recently, there has been growing interest in alternative approaches to the problem. One such potential solution is provided by ‘counternarratives’; attempts to challenge extremist and violent extremist messages, whether directly or indirectly, through a range of online and offline means. Counter-narrative has become a catch-all term for a wide range of activities with different aims and tactics, everything from public diplomacy and strategic communications by government, to targeted campaigns to discredit the ideologies and actions of violent extremists.

In order to make sense of the complex range of actions and initiatives described as ‘counter-narratives’, the report sets out a ‘counter-messaging spectrum’, which is comprised of three main types of activities: government strategic communications, alternative narratives and counter-narratives. The countermessaging spectrum is summarised in the table overleaf.

This report was commissioned by Public Safety Canada. It aims to review the state of knowledge about efforts to counter narratives of violent extremism and make recommendations for governments, such as the Canadian government, to guide their emerging work in this sensitive area of policy. It is important to stress that counternarrative work as an area of public policy is in its infancy. While community and civil society groups have been conducting this work for many years, governments are new to the issue and the private sector is feeling its way with extreme caution. This means that there are only a small number of case studies to draw upon. For this reason, as well as the limited scope of the project, the recommendations for government are tentative.

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