The need to counter extremist propaganda more effectively

Written by Alexander Ritzmann on 13 December 2016 in Opinion Plus
Opinion Plus

There are different reasons why people believe in extremist ideologies or join extremist groups, explains Alexander Ritzmann.

A map of the world in binary

Extremist narratives aim to generate a world view where everything is black and white, where one is either in or out of a group | Photo credit:  Pixabay

Propaganda, the art of twisting information to make it fit your interests or ideology, always plays a role. Extremists are often attracted by the clear cut messages that can give simple meaning to an otherwise complex life. Extremist narratives aim to generate a world view where everything is black and white, where one is either in or out of a group. And they promise emotional and social benefits such as belonging to a new family or brotherhood in the fight for a supposedly just cause.

Propaganda is effective when it is close to a perceived truth of the targeted audience.  Ideology, whether for white supremacists or Islamists, plays a key role in legitimising the strategies and actions of the extremists which would otherwise simply be criminal acts. In some cases, ideology makes the difference between someone committing suicide or driving a truck into a group of people.

But even well done propaganda has its limits. We all live in our communication bubbles and echo chambers and are largely immune to outside information that is challenging our world views. Propaganda mostly works when people are emotionally vulnerable, if they are looking for a new direction, for support or to make sense of their situation.


Twisted information can therefore be effective when people are curious about what "else is out there" or in doubt, when a perceived truth losses attraction.

Counter and alternative narrative campaigns can work if they are specifically directed at a well-researched and targeted audience that is curious about extremist content or in doubt if an accepted extremist world view is still working out for them.

Counter narrative campaigns like "open your eyes", are a first, important step as they highlight flaws, lies and contradictions and can make those vulnerable to extremist propaganda rethink their views.

Alternative narrative campaigns like "Exit Hate" do, by promoting role models or examples for positive actions, offer new directions.

Yet campaigns alone are not enough and need to be accompanied by additional efforts to connect with the targeted audience over an extended period of time. One-to-one digital interventions, a form of online social work, is a necessary follow up to satisfy the individual's need for attention, (inter-)action and to evaluate whether the campaign and intervention did have the desired impact.

To counter extremist propaganda and promote positive alternatives effectively and on a large scale, civil society must be put in the driver's seat. Empowering small NGOs or even engaged individuals by creating networks of pro-democratic activists, will be key.

Governments need to help create, support and maintain these networks, but should avoid driving and steering. Individuals who are curious about extremist content will not listen to government messages.  And even more importantly, the credibility of civil society is at risk if it is seen as the state's mouthpiece.

The European Commission's "Empowering Civil Society Programme", which aims to "empower civil society to increase the volume of effective alternative narratives online", could be an opportunity to create such networks of activists and NGOs.

To increase the effectiveness for narrative campaigns, several things are crucial. First, a transparent vetting process on how to select partners that promote European values such as pluralism, liberalism and democracy will determine the credibility of any campaign.

Secondly, having a strong evaluation component from the start in selecting and promoting good practices for later stages, is essential.

Finally, easier and faster access to EU and national funding for small NGOs across Europe will determine if this or any other programme can become a success.

About the author

Alexander Ritzmann is Executive Director of the European Foundation for Democracy and Chair of Radicalisation Awareness Network´s (RAN) Working Group on Communication and Narratives

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