Monday, January 4th 2016
“. . . counter-messaging has been driven to the forefront of countering violent extremism (CVE) efforts undertaken by the United States and its allies. From defense agencies to diplomats to civil society groups, almost every actor involved in CVE is committed to developing narratives to counter the potent propaganda and appeal of groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda,” wrote Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr in a January 4, 2016, article, “Fixing How We Fight the Islamic State’s Narrative,” on theWar on the Rocks website. Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and the chief executive officer of Valens Global; Barr is the research manager at Valens Global.
They continued, “While there is no shortage of actors interested in developing narratives that can counter violent extremist propaganda, the CVE space is noticeably lacking in analytic frameworks that illustrate the various purposes of counter-messaging efforts, highlight how parallel projects fit together, and help practitioners evaluate the effectiveness of these initiatives.” They outline an analytic framework, and they propose “a whole-of-community approach among government, civil society, commercial, and other actors.” This brief gist necessarily omits supporting concepts and the fuller elaborations of each objective and policy, but here are key points.
- . . . much of the work in this sphere has been ad hoc and piecemeal. It is often unclear who the target audiences are for counter-messaging campaigns, and even the campaigns’ objectives can be amorphous. This absence of an analytic framework leaves CVE practitioners at a disadvantage.
- . . . the Islamic State’s robust social media machine makes it a unique challenge, allowing the group to mobilize extremists to violent action at an unprecedented rate and scale. The Islamic State is truly revolutionary in medium and message, and thus is an appropriate case study for [an] analytic framework.
- The framework outlined below can help CVE actors better understand how various counter-messaging and counter-network policies interact with, and reinforce, one another. This in turn will help CVE actors maximize the impact of all the tools in their toolkit, enabling a more efficient and comprehensive strategy.
There Can Be No Strategy Without Objectives
- . . . develop an enemy-centric counter-messaging campaign — one that is appropriately mapped to the adversary’s strengths — rather than beginning with a set of policies that practitioners wish to pursue, and then fishing around to find their purpose.
- This approach also enables practitioners to better evaluate the effectiveness of counter-narratives. For instance, a campaign that serves a disruptive purpose (forcing the Islamic State to expend resources on refutation) has not necessarily failed if it does not deradicalizecurrent supporters.
- A well-designed counter-narrative often addresses various components of a VEO’s messaging strategy at once. Publicizing defections from the Islamic State, for example, undermines the group’s core narratives of strength and legitimacy, places the group on the defensivefrom a messaging standpoint, and helps to dissuade individuals from supporting the Islamic State.
- CVE practitioners should incorporate the capabilities and resources of a variety of stakeholders, including governments (central, state-level, and municipal), civil society actors, and — where they are willing and capable — tech firms. Each of these actors can play a unique role.
- . . . it may not be appropriate for the federal government to take the lead in disseminating certain counter-extremist content, but it can play a vital purpose in supporting the efforts of civil society actors, both financially and through the provision of subject matter expertise.
- Tech companies may be reluctant to engage in counter-messaging, but might provide assistance to actors seeking to develop compelling web-based counter-narrative content.
Objectives of a Counter-Messaging Campaign against the Islamic State
- . . . we might see the broad goals of a counter-messaging campaign against the Islamic State as: 1) undermine the group’s appeal; 2) reduce the group’s ability to exploit social media and other online communications platforms; and 3) diminish the Islamic State’s capacity to engage with and recruit supporters. Several core objectives can advance these goals.
- Undermine the Islamic State’s core narrative.
- Put the Islamic State on the defensive.
- Break up Islamic State relationships.
- Peel away Islamic State supporters.
- Provide alternative pathways.
- Prevent mobilization to action/violence.
- Bulwark against future radicalization.
From Objectives to Policy
- A variety of narratives and policies, detailed below, can be implemented that advance one or some of these objectives. These narratives can be promoted by a variety of actors, including governments, civil society actors, journalists, activists, analysts, or academics. In many cases, the audience will be most receptive when the government is not the messenger.
- Campaign to undermine the Islamic State’s narrative of military strength.
- Exposing the Islamic State’s inability to provide public services.
- Challenging the Islamic State’s religious narrative.
- Publicizing defections
- One-on-one intervention with at-risk individuals.
- Online discussion forums.
- Taking down jihadist social media accounts and websites.
Toward a Better Understanding of Counter-Messaging
- . . . the importance of the online space — as opposed to messaging in the physical world —should not be exaggerated.
- Governments can play a central role in facilitating a whole-of-community approach among government, civil society, commercial, and other actors. Counter-messaging is most effective when various actors are incorporated into a broader strategy, and governments alone have the resources, capabilities, and connections to manage these multiple lines of effort. Indeed, while governments are rightly reluctant to take center stage in counter-messaging efforts, their role as backstage managers is potentially even more important to the overarching strategy.
- . . . As CVE continues to grow in importance, now is the time to establish foundational blocks upon which future counter-messaging campaigns can be erected and evaluated.
- The Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and other VEOs have carefully refined and structured their propaganda operations to maximize their appeal to target audiences. We will have to do the same.