Let’s Talk: How social media responds to radicalisation

Tanya Silverman, Project Coordinator and Christopher J. Stewart, Programme Associate argue that Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) is a field still in its infancy, yet it has quickly expanded to incorporate counter narratives. Against Violent Extremism (AVE), a network of former violent extremists and survivors of extremism managed by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) carried out a yearlong project in partnership with Jigsaw (formerly Google Ideas) to create, curate, and to bring light to the effectiveness of these “online counter-narratives”. 

The growing interest in the utility of counter-narratives to counter online extremism, is a response to the professionalisation and growth of targeted online propaganda being spread by groups like ISIS. There is a clear need to compete with the large quantity of output such groups are creating, with ISIS currently producing thousands of individual pieces of material, every day, across social media.

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 same people being targeted by extremist groups. Counter messages take many forms: videos, images, memes, cartoon strips, and online literature, depending on the audience, to deliver this counter message.

This project, and subsequent report, aimed to highlight the importance of online counter-narratives by assessing their efficacy, thus showing the need to continue collective efforts to scale-up campaigns. Evaluations, like those provided in the report, are the start of a process of assessing, and improving the impact of online efforts which focus on preventing youth radicalisation from violent groups like ISIS or neo-Nazi movements.

However, many of the organisations that are trying to do this work still lack the resources and capacity to do so. With this in mind, the counter-narrative project laid out three primary objectives: to assist a variety of non-profits to develop and share their own counter-narrative content; analyse the strengths and  weaknesses of different social media platforms for counter-narrative campaigns; and provide informed guidance to other non-profits to build their capacity doing this work.

Over the course of the year, AVE worked with three different organisations to achieve these objectives: the US-based Life After Hate, which aims to encourage those in neo-Nazi groups to leave, or “exit”; Harakat ut Taleem, hoping to counter recruitment into the Taliban in Pakistan; and Average Mohamed, a non-profit that uses animation as a means to instil critical thinking into Somali youth and encourage resilience to extremist ideologies. AVE primed these organisations to develop dynamic counter-narrative videos specially created to catch the interest of their respective target audiences.

These “target audiences” were developed by the NGOs, and then informed by previous research conducted by the AVE. The targeting process used the paid promotional advertisements offered on platforms to reach people whom the campaign would resonate with. Delivering videos to a specific audience requires an understanding of the affinities that the audience has, such as shared interests, group dialogue, community and network influencers, and keywords. Developing an accurate methodology for reaching potentially small and isolated communities online is an iterative process. Progressions in how this can be done more efficiently have already taken place within the ISD, where social listening and data analytics tools – designed for the marketing world – are being incorporated into counter-narrative campaigning. Essentially, this helps organisations to reach their intended audiences. Counter-narrative campaigns are not created to go viral and reach everyone but, rather, the right people.

Going “viral” relies too heavily on quantitative analysis. Whilst this shows the wide reach of the campaigns, it does not show whether it reached the right audience and it certainly does not show the impact the campaigns have had. As such, the results from across the three campaigns garnered over 378,000 video views and over 20,000 total engagements which 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.

This qualitative analysis can help to understand the impact of the results. 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 sowing 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. This clearly demonstrates that counter-narrative campaigns can reach the right audience. 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 deradicalisation are willing to reach out, and contact an organisation on social media, in response to a counter-narrative campaign. Remembering that the ExitUSA campaign aimed to reach people in a neo-Nazi violent movement and offer them an “exit”, these eight individuals tell us that the campaign had provable impact.

Read the full report here.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organisation.