Author: James Deane and Will Taylor, September 7 2016 - Looking at information responses to extremism, James Deane and Will Taylor reflect on the challenges for media development organisations and call for an evidence-based debate that accommodates different approaches.
The reported killing of the chief strategist for so-called Islamic State, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, is seen by many as a significant blow for the organisation, not least because he was largely responsible for the group’s propaganda strategy. The effectiveness of IS’s international communication machine, along with that of other extremist groups, has prompted increasingly urgent attempts at crafting effective information responses by policy makers around the world. Many of those responses have included efforts to try to counter extremist narratives and replace them with an alternative set of messages and narratives. We live in an information age and the 'war on terror' has increasingly focused on battles over the information space.
The challenge for organisations supporting independent media
For media development organisations like BBC Media Action, which operates in several countries where violent extremism exists, this presents a set of challenges. Our programmes are designed to enable dialogue, prompt greater political participation and encourage accountability, the lack of which can drive violent extremism. We support independent media and work to foster sources of information and platforms for discussion that people from all sections of society can trust. We increasingly work in conflict-affected societies, where we facilitate discussion across divides and ensure all sections of society, including those who feel most marginalised, are part of those debates.
This work has led us to conclude that free, independent and trusted media and platforms for public debate make it more difficult for violent extremism to take hold. Our experiences also give us a good deal of insight into the information and communication environments of societies, which are vulnerable to extremism.
We need a debate focused on what works
But here’s our dilemma. We don’t profess to be experts on extremism or extremists and we are not an organisation that has been set up to 'counter' extremist propaganda. We don’t know for sure that what we do actually reduces violent extremism. That’s because we don’t yet have really hard evidence to show that it does. However, we do have good evidence that our work improves things like knowledge, confidence, political participation, accountability and other drivers that affect extremism.
What we do know makes us concerned about how effective much of the time, money and effort going into countering violent extremism are proving. We have particular worries that the debate about using media and communication to combat violent extremism does not seem sufficiently evidence-based. We have concerns that investing in “counter-narratives” – what some would term counter-propaganda – is not always supported by good evidence. And yet it is here where increasing resources are being focused sometimes, we fear, at the expense of other efforts designed to support free and independent media and other information efforts that might be more effective at reducing violent extremism.
In 2013, an Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) review urged governments to tread with caution, warning that counter-messaging efforts can be ineffective or even counter-productive. A Partnership for Conflict, Crime and Security report (written by a fellow we hosted) also raised doubts: “the theory that the messages, myths, promises, objectives, glamour and other enticements propagated via Violent Extremist narratives can be replaced with, or dismantled by, an alternative set of communications is an assumption that remains unproven.” The report also argues that it is difficult to see how these reactive strategies can be effective as they don’t deal with why extremist narratives are attractive in the first place. There are growing signs that a reassessment of a counter-narrative approach is underway, including in the US.
Pursuing proven strategies that embrace complexity
Violent extremism is a growing problem and there is no doubt that the propaganda narratives from organisations like IS are sophisticated. Media and communication strategies need to be a priority in combating these groups but there needs to be a better evidence-based debate to determine which strategies are actually likely to achieve results. Organisations like the UN Development Programme have already helpfully convened efforts to focus on the issue but more work is needed to bring together a diversity of fit-for-purpose approaches.
We believe that trusted and independent media make societies that are vulnerable to violent extremism more resistant to the phenomenon. Well-produced media content catches people’s attention, resonates with audiences and influences opinions on complex issues. Such complex issues include many 'drivers' of violent extremism, including: corruption, political injustice, marginalisation, lack of economic opportunity and struggles with identity. The media can help people critically think about and discuss these issues, which is so important to how they relate to the grievance narratives promoted by violent extremist groups.
But ultimately, all of us need to be circumspect about the impact of our work in this area. There needs to be a bigger conversation of what works, especially over the long term, in tackling not just violent extremism but also its drivers. We look forward to being part of that conversation.
James Deane is Director of Policy and Learning at BBC Media Action and Will Taylor is the lead adviser on BBC Media Action's Governance and Rights programming.
Image credit: BBC Media Action
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