How do you get people to leave Islamist or neo-Nazi movements?

A new report suggests 'counter-narratives' online can sow the seeds of doubt


Against Violent Extremism is a network of former violent extremists and survivors of extremism, managed by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

AVE has carried out a year-long project in partnership with Jigsaw (formerly Google Ideas) to create, curate and show the impact of ‘online counter-narratives’ in tackling violent extremism.

Battlefield of ideas

Online counter-narratives are a tool for challenging the propaganda extremist  groups use to radicalise and mobilise new members.

They do this by discrediting, deconstructing or demystifying extremist narratives, and are designed to reach the very people being targeted by extremist groups.

Counter-messages take many forms: videos, images, memes, cartoon strips and online literature, depending on the audience.

This project and subsequent report aimed to show the importance of online counter-narratives by measuring their success and demonstrating the need for more collective work in this area.

It hoped to assess and improve the impact of online efforts to prevent youth radicalisation by violent groups like ISIS or neo-Nazi movements.

The project had three main goals:

  • to help a range of non-profit groups to develop and share their own counter-narrative content
  • to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of different social media platforms for counter-narrative campaigns
  • and to provide other non-profits with guidance on how to build their capacity for similar work.

Neo-Nazis, Taliban and al-Shabab

Over the course of the year, AVE worked with three different organisations to achieve these goals:

  • the US-based Life After Hate, which encourages those in neo-Nazi groups to leave, or ‘exit’
  • Harakat ut Taleem, which counters recruitment by the Taliban in Pakistan
  • and Average Mohamed, a non-profit that uses animation to promote critical thinking among Somali youth and build resilience to extremist ideologies.

Counter-narrative campaigns are not created to go viral and reach everyone but, rather, the right people.

Getting videos to a specific audience requires an understanding of the audience’s affinities, such as shared interests, group dialogue, community and network influencers, and keywords.

Bearing fruit

The results from across the three campaigns garnered over 378,000 video views and over 20,000 total engagements. These include likes, shares, replies, retweets, comments (over 480 comments were made in response to the content) and messages over a three week period.

To ensure these statistics are worth something more than vanity metrics, it was important to process the data through a qualitative analysis.

In the report we understand these as ‘sustained engagements’.

These ongoing engagements provide a persuasive indication that the content has inspired the consideration of different viewpoints, critical thinking, and sowed the seeds of doubt in the intended audience.

The best example of this is Life After Hate’s ‘ExitUSA’ counter-narrative campaign. The campaign videos led to constructive and antagonistic exchanges between users who clearly held neo-Nazi views.

One Facebook user commented:

‘So as a devoted WN [White Nationalist] who has been involved in the digital wing of the ideology since 2012-ish [sic], what’s your sales pitch for me leaving?

What do I personally stand to gain by leaving a movement that I’ve been a mover and shaker in, a movement where I’m making a positive difference for my people?’

ExitUSA showed the greatest indication of having reached the right audience and also of having had an impact. Eight individuals reached out to the organisation via Facebook after watching the advertised video content.

This suggested that people going through a process of personal de-radicalisation are willing to reach out, and contact an organisation on social media, in response to a counter-narrative campaign.

What next?

Counter-narratives remain a subfield in Countering Violent Extremism, yet as the assessment framework developed during the Google project grows, they could play a greater role going forward.

Facilitating multinational cross-sector partnerships, and increasing the production of counter-narrative content, is the next step being taken by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the wider CVE community.

You can read the report here. The ISD has also produced a counter-narrative handbook and an online toolkit to help people inspired by this project.

Tanya Silverman is Against Violent Extremism network coordinator at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

Christopher J Stewart is Counter-Narratives Associate at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

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