How To Counter Radical Right Narratives Head On

Redirecting people away from radicalizing content and towards counter-narratives is a counter-extremism tool that warrants more study.
(anokarina/creative commons)

(anokarina/creative commons)

Dr. Craig McCann is a former senior counter-terrorism police officer with extensive experience of preventative counterterrorism tactics.

For years we have seen huge investment in the development of counter-narratives as a means of combatting the Radical Right. Generally, this has taken the form of government donors and multi-national companies such as Facebook and Google funding organizations to create and disseminate counter-narrative campaigns, usually in the form of short videos which are intended to be targeted towards those individuals who are seeking to engage with extreme content in order to challenge their views and to channel them away from trajectories into violence.

But does this approach work? This is the enduring question which has exercised those working in this area for more than a decade. It is in this time that we have seen a sharp increase in the levels of investment in the online space as the new frontier in the newly coined term “countering violent extremism” and yet the required testing and evaluation in order to better understand the impact of counter-narrative campaigns has been slow to become embedded across those practitioners working in this area. There are a plethora of toolkits and advice on “best practice” available but there is not enough rigor in the data collection methods being employed by government-level donors to hold implementing partners to account. I have seen so many of these campaigns where the fundamental “so what?” question remains un-answered.

Governments have been applying increasing pressure on social media companies to clean up their digital backyards for some time. And yet, this has generally followed the same line of the expeditious removal of harmful content. The same kind of scrutiny has not traversed into methodologies that respond to demand rather than supply.

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Counter-narratives, as part of a broader strategic communications, approach have their place in our fight against terrorism. But over the last few years, I have seen too many people framing the effective use of counter-narratives disseminated online as the silver bullet. It is not. In my experience, we are social creatures and for an individual to embark on a trajectory into committing acts of violence, they need some form of help in the real world. There is not a single incidence of an individual being “radicalized” online in the absence of an offline component. And yet, I have seen huge sums of money being funneled into online research and the development of responses which have been divorced from programmes of support at the front end of delivery.

One approach that has been utilized by a range of organizations is The Redirect Method, developed with Google is a means of redirecting those who are searching for extremist content towards counter-narratives, generally in the form of short YouTube videos. While this approach has some merit in responding to the demand for extremist content, rather than solely focusing on the supply, I have seen some bold claims about its utility in precipitating behavior change.

How much an individual engages with a YouTube video (including how much of it they watch, what they view before and after, and whether they add any comments) is not in itself an indicator of behavior change. This, for me, is only discoverable through face to face interactions with trained safeguarding professionals. I do however see the potential benefits of using the way in which individuals engage online, such as through social media, as a means of reaching them and then channeling or “off-ramping” them into offline forms of support. This, in my view, is where safeguarding in a wider sense will move in the future as more and more people manifest their vulnerabilities online as well as offline.

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I have seen a welcome shift of late from so much of a focus online to a more balanced position where there is an investment in capacity building efforts to develop partnership approaches to safeguarding individuals from trajectories into terrorism. The benefits of inter-agency operability are broader than counter-terrorism when we consider that statutory and non-statutory partners are having to play a far greater role in protecting individuals and communities from a range of social harms.

We require two fundamental changes to the development and dissemination of counter-narratives. First, there must be more of an emphasis on what works and why. I am not convinced that counter-narrative campaigns are subject to nearly enough scrutiny to determine their impact, and indeed whether in some scenarios they could have done more harm than good. Government-level donors must commission independent monitoring and evaluation of these programmes rather than allowing implementers to continue marking their own homework.

Second, I really believe that counter-narrative campaigns are divorced from the reality of peoples’ lived experiences. We see so many nationally led initiatives that attempt to speak to so many different audiences that their message becomes so diluted that it is meaningless. How about empowering and encouraging local actors to put together counter-narratives that speak to the local impact of issues such as immigration, child sexual exploitation prosecutions, and the activities of extremist organizations who draw out the radical right in response? This is the front end of developing narratives that speak directly to locally held fears, suspicions, and grievances that underpin extremist narratives.

I do believe that counter-narratives are part of our toolkit in responding to the Radical Right, just as much as they are for other forms of extremism. But we have a long way to go to instill confidence in their utility and to make them meaningful for the target audiences.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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Opinion // CARR / Disinformation / Radical Right / Social Media / Tech / White Supremacist Terrorism / White Supremacy