Ideological warfare is significantly more complex to execute and evaluate than its kinetic counterpart. It involves shaping, redefining, or rehabilitating attitudes and perceptions that underpin extremism and extremist sentiment.
Extremists have amassed an arsenal of propaganda material that is not only voluminous, but dynamic and expansive. Pornography, comics, pop visuals on Youtube and posters, memes, video games, message boards and chat rooms, and coded pamphlets provide but a glimpse into the media and tech savvy operations of extremist groups in the 21st century. Countering every single piece of propaganda churned out by an organization with a legion of tech savvy supporters would not only be interminable, but constitute reactive, defensive game strategy. This would, ostensibly, give extremists the upper hand in the ideological war on terror. The position of power, of developing strategy and charting the way forward. It would be counter-intuitive in an approach that warrants dynamic advancement.
The counter narrative / counter-propaganda needs to transcend its current position in the shadow of the extremists’ narrative, and do much more than simply provide retorts and rebuttals. It must do much more than provide an alternative point of view. It must change the conversation. In order to effectively do so, the following must be intrinsic in campaign strategy development.
1. Activate the ‘silent majority’: Most people do not perceive combatting terrorism as being relative to them. It is therefore important to activate this mass of people by mobilizing and empowering youth leaders, women, and tech savvy youth to counter the ardent supporters of extremism that are in no short supply. These voices will be more credible to their peer groups and spheres of influence than a government voice can. They can personalize and authenticate these efforts.
2. Empower messengers (credible voices as above) by facilitating access to technical expertise and skills, resources to generate quality content and package it appropriately, promote and distribute it for various audiences.
3. Multiplicity; Messages should communicate what anti-extremism is as well as what it is against. It should be emotionally captivating, in tandem with the aesthetic and visual appeal used in extremist messaging. The messaging should also provide alternative courses of action to channel grievances, energy, anger, and desire to be a part of something that transcends them.
4. Bridge the gap between passive consumption of propaganda and active engagement with extremist causes. This necessitates the inclusion of an early detection/ early warning parameter and referral system in the messaging that allows kin and peers to be proactive in countering the radicalization of those most at risk. This can be done by empowering individuals to deconstruct and discredit extremist arguments.
5. Government is often not the most credible messenger for at-risk audiences. This can be remedied by addressing the bubbling political grievances that fuel extremism. Proponents of the counter narrative need to view it as a political issue with a media dimension.
Debunking the fallacies propagated by extremists to further their ends needs to be compounded with the inclusive, liberal tenets of a pluralistic society to not only be wholly effective, but resonate with the audiences of counter narrative campaigns.