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Moving Away from Islamist Extremism: Assessing Counter Narrative Responses to the Far-Right Online

Moving Away from Islamist Extremism: Assessing Counter Narrative Responses to the Far-Right Online
13th August 2020 Dr. William Allchorn
In Insights

Over the past decade and a half, counter-narratives – defined as ‘messages that…[demystify], deconstruct or delegitimise extremist narratives’ (Tuck and Silverman 2016: 65) – have become a key part of western efforts to combat terrorism. Placed at the softer end of counter terror (CT) tactics and entering the UK policy discourse in mid-2005, the use of communications in order to disrupt organisations committed to violent extremist causes has come to occupy one of many ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’ counter measures for Governments and civil society organisations wishing to counter political violence. This has become especially important as terrorist organisations (ranging from IS to the Base) have become more adept at using social media in order to radicalise, recruit and disseminate their messages – thereby circumventing traditional forms of media and face-to-face encounters in order to spread and recruit others to their ‘propaganda of the deed’.

When compared with counter narrative texts in general, however, little research has been devoted to the effectiveness of counter-narratives as part of CT efforts to stop radical right-wing terrorism. This is part of a wider lacuna within terrorism studies of research into radical right extremism (Schuurman 2019) and is despite the increasing prevalence of far right political violence in the USA (Haltiwanger August 2019), Europe (Deutsche Welle 14th March 2019) and Australasia (Hollingsworth 21st May 2019). As part of a yearlong collaboration between the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR) and Hedayah, I have been conducting a systematic review of narratives and counter-narratives interventions used by (and in opposition to) violent, extra-parliamentary forms of far-right activism in the US, UK, Germany, Scandinavia, the Balkans, New Zealand and Australia, trying to identify common narratives and counter-narrative interventions in the far-right space.

Our findings show that far-right groups globally have been coalescing around five core narratives that they have been weaponising; both online and offline. These include notions of cultural and ethnic identities being under threat due to so-called ‘mass migration’ often connected with a clash of civilizations or at the more extreme end notions of a ‘great replacement’ of indigenous European culture or racial holy war. Authoritarian solutions to such diagnoses include halting migration or forceful repatriation (or what some Identitarian groups term as “remigration”). Added to this, the project has found an anti-establishment element either tagged onto these above narratives or existing in their own right, blaming elites for their complicity in so-called multiculturalist, pro-migration agendas or for being too enamoured with globalisation to deal with powerful multinational companies and global institutions. This sense of victimhood and endangerment seeps into a final more corrosive set of misogynist and homophobic narratives that the project has found among racially and ethnically nationalist groups (such as Sonnenkrieg Division in the UK and Antipodean Resistance in Australia) that suggest that societies are under threat because men cannot live ‘according to their nature’.

In response to these narratives, the radical right counter-narrative project (materials from which will be posted online on Hedayah’s Counter-Narrative Library over the coming month) has unearthed an array of counter-narrative interventions, ranging from downstream de-radicalisation initiatives to upstream broad-based campaigns designed to instil resilience against radical right-wing ideology. Moving beyond videos and text-based interventions, a large number of the cases reviewed showed innovative and creative pathways when tackling far-right extremism online, redirecting users away from potentially terroristic content or generating difficult conversations with committed far-right activists. Offline, this has also involved using slick, professional and creative campaigns (often with an online element to spotlight interventions), using t-shirts that reveal counter-narrative messages or the spectacle of a far-right march in order to generate funding for non-governmental EXIT-type programmes. The main findings at this side of the project was that while such campaigns are little talked about they do exist and point forward to what best practice could look like in this space going forward.

To conclude, the far-right has become much better in the last ten years at harnessing social and online media in order to recruit, spread propaganda and organise its campaigns. A mirror image to this going forward are empirically tested and theoretically sound counter-narrative interventions that militate against the attractiveness of these messages and show those involved (or ‘at-risk’ of becoming involved) alternative avenues away from extremist milieus. As part of a follow-on project, CARR will be testing the most promising counter-narratives from the radical right counter-narratives project to see what ‘cuts through’ among far-right sympathetic audiences in the offline and online space. As Demant & De Graaf (2010: 423) suggest, “…combating terrorism is itself a form of communication, just as terrorism is itself.”