Extremism is – at least partially – a communication challenge. The acceptance of extremist narratives, which provide followers with a ‘competitive system of meaning’ in opposition to mainstream political narratives, is “undeniably critical to the process of radicalization.” These narratives are often told and broadcasted through digital propaganda material spread by extremists across various (social) media platforms. Consequently, contemporary counter-extremism efforts also include narrative campaigns, which seek to respond to and counter such propaganda material as well as to provide positive alternatives to the worldviews postulated by extremist actors. Because the digital sphere allows for the dissemination of such counter- and alternative narrative (CAN) campaigns to the desired target audiences, the ‘narrative wars’ against radicalisation and extremism are fought on popular online platforms.
The question, however, is not simply ‘Who tells the better story?’ but also where and how it is told. Although the last years have seen an exponential increase in the number of (social) media platforms used simultaneously by extremists, narrative campaigns to prevent or counter (violent) extremism (P/CVE) are often circulated on only one or two platforms at the time. Even if multiple platforms are used, the content is rarely connected and told strategically across various platforms. A potential avenue for the improvement of future CAN campaigns, therefore, is to engage in transmedia storytelling across as many platforms and media formats as possible.
Transmedia storytelling is defined by Henry Jenkins as “a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes its [sic] own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.” In Jenkin’s conceptualisation, transmedia storytelling is about telling individual but connected stories which together form a whole (fictional) world or meta-narrative and to coordinate the narration across different, complementary media rather than simply transferring the story from one channel to another. Well-known examples include the narrative worlds of Star Wars, 24, Marvel or Pokémon, which are told, for instance, through films, TV shows, (comic) books, games, and social media content. These media outputs can be consumed individually but all complement each other to create a holistic narrative experience. While the term transmedia storytelling often refers to fictional stories told across various channels, it can also be used to conceptualise non-fictional narrative worlds, e.g. the charity event Red Nose Day or educational formats about WWII. With an ever-increasing variety of (digital) media formats and online platforms, the possibilities to use diverse types of content and channels in transmedia storytelling to create a holistic narrative experience are manifold.
Extremist groups are also – to varying degrees – engaging in transmedia storytelling. They are not only migrating across platforms, but are posting complementary propaganda content in various media formats and across multiple channels to communicate their worldview. Extremist actors too create a holistic narrative experience with various types of content, including audio, video, image, and written pieces, and through employing different genres, from action-laden propaganda videos to calm anashid. Islamic State (IS) in particular, as Monaci argues, used transmedia storytelling techniques extensively in its propaganda output, including ‘the art of world-making’ to create an engaging and immersive narrative experience with a distinct aesthetic style connecting various communication channels into a comprehensive narrative world. Furthermore, similar to ‘fandoms’ creating bottom-up transmedia story content complementing the official narratives created for popular stories such as Star Wars, followers of extremist worldviews also create additional content in various formats and spread it across different platforms, creating a participatory narrative world with a high degree of ownership for followers.
Potential Benefits of Transmedia Storytelling for P/CVE
Considering this, the use of transmedia storytelling and the presence of complementary CAN content across various platforms would have clear benefits for P/CVE.
Firstly, transmedia storytelling would allow a more immersive and appealing narrative experience than current CAN campaigns can offer. By telling ‘our’ stories in a coordinated manner across various platforms and in different media formats, users could be addressed with different types of complementary narrative material and different sub-stories while retaining overall coherence of the message presented. It would be a chance to utilise the strength of various types of content and platforms in a coordinated fashion – rather than dispersing content in an unintegrated manner across different channels like it is currently done – and allow users to consume narrative campaigns according to their format preferences.
Secondly, transmedia storytelling would make collaboration between different CAN projects easier. New projects would be able to build upon and align their content to an existing narrative world, allowing each CAN campaign to contribute to a coordinated overarching story. Unlike extremist actors, who often share a basic meta-narrative to refer to in their propaganda output, there is currently no agreed-upon, overarching narrative CAN campaigns can refer to. Rather, each project presents its own, small story disconnected from – and sometimes even in competition to – other CAN efforts. Transmedia storytelling could support the necessary coordination to develop a shared meta-narrative, because the approach requires comprehensive world-building to be successful. Individual CAN campaigns would no longer be isolated but contribute to a shared meta-narrative for P/CVE and complement each other.
Thirdly, transmedia storytelling could be a chance to allow bottom-up user participation in digital CAN efforts. The narrative worlds of Star Wars and Marvel, for instance, are not only built by professional content creators but also by prosumers – users, who contribute to the production of the narrative world by adding their own content such as fanfiction or pieces of art. CAN campaigns could benefit from the opportunity to take a more participatory approach and allow bottom-up contribution from prosumers.
Fourthly, transmedia storytelling would support a more long-term approach to P/CVE narrative campaigns. Currently, CAN projects usually run for a very limited amount of time, then funding stops, the momentum that was created dwindles, and eventually the content and channels that were created are no longer engaged with. If each campaign was designed as part of a larger, holistic narrative experience, such content could be integrated into future CAN campaigns and support ‘sequels’ of the narratives presented. As campaigns would partially build upon each other, the content made in previous campaigns would be re-usable and remain relevant to the overall story. Taking a more long-term approach, as required by transmedia storytelling, would therefore be a more efficient use of resources.
If we believe that narratives are critical for radicalisation to occur and, consequently, also crucial for P/CVE communication efforts, we need to ask how we can improve digital CAN campaigns. Transmedia storytelling may be one of the avenues to do so. Instead of limiting the stories ‘we’ tell to uncoordinated efforts on a limited amount of platforms, transmedia storytelling would place the emphasis on creating complementary content and campaigns that make reference to and build upon a comprehensive, shared narrative world. By creating a more holistic narrative experience than current campaigns, future narrative projects could strengthen their appeal and, therefore, increase the likelihood that they will reach and influence the desired target audiences. As Cobaugh writes, publishing unconnected narrative campaigns is “like writing a book with disparate but brilliant chapters that have no plot or storyline. Each chapter will teach the reader something potentially valuable but fail to tell the whole story in a meaningful manner.”