The narratives we are exposed to and the stories we tell ourselves and each other have a profound impact on our perceptions, attitudes, and worldviews. It is no coincidence that throughout history, political and religious leaders have sought to profit from or ban certain narratives to advance their agendas, influence the electorate, and consolidate their power. Hence, it is unsurprising that extremists of all couleurs are also keen to advance their ideological beliefs through the dissemination of narratives. As the Radicalization Awareness Network states, it is widely believed that “exposure to extremist narratives is undeniably critical to the process of radicalisation.” Consequently, counter- and alternative narratives (CANs) have emerged as a key tool to prevent and counter (violent) extremism (P/CVE) and engage in a ‘narrative war’ against the stories extremists tell to influence their audiences. These narrative campaigns are often delivered in the digital sphere to effectively reach young target audiences.
However, despite decades of discussions on CAN campaigns and the publication of multiple guidelines and toolkits detailing the development and implementation of effective narrative campaigns against extremism, one of the most popular types of narratives is conspicuously absent from the discourse: fictional stories. Currently, research on the persuasive appeal of fictional stories is largely disregarded in conversations on P/CVE narrative campaigns. However, while it may be counterintuitive for some, as extremists are not usually perceived as avid (fictional) storytellers, both theory and practice of narrative campaigns against extremist narratives could benefit from engaging with insights on fictional stories and their persuasive effects.
How Fictional Stories Persuade
There is little doubt about the persuasive appeal of fictional narratives. Many children’s books and TV programs such as Sesame Street or Harry Potter do not simply entertain, but convey social and behavioral norms and shape children’s attitudes on a range of issues. Adults too are avid consumers of fictional stories and while they may perceive themselves to be largely unaffected by the fictional narratives they are exposed to, research has provided ample evidence that, regardless of age, the human mind not only enjoys fictional narratives but its perceptions and attitudes are shaped by the stories it consumes. Fictional stories are known to affect perceptions on race, the death penalty, homosexuality, climate change, and other political issues, thereby shaping the worldviews of audiences. Over two decades of academic engagement with fictional narratives has consistently demonstrated that such stories elicit persuasive effects on both adults and children and that “fiction does mold our minds”.
A range of interrelated mechanisms explains why fictional stories may impact perceptions. Firstly, stories are usually not perceived to carry an explicit persuasive intent and audiences may not suspect to be persuaded by a narrative. This may prompt audiences to simply enjoy the story and relax their mind, which may decrease their reaction and hamper the formation of counter-arguments to the narrative’s content. Secondly, fictional stories may immerse audiences and transport them to a different world. Not only does being transported into the narrative make it more enjoyable, but it may also motivate audiences to go along with the story rather than engage in counter-arguing. Thirdly, audiences may identify and/or form parasocial relationships with fictional characters. This may make them more inclined to listen to these characters and accept story-congruent attitudes. Because audiences feel with protagonists in a narrative and go with them through the emotional flow of the story, fictional narratives may be especially impactful on an emotional level and persuade affectively rather than cognitively.
To elicit persuasive effects, it is not necessary that the fictional story corresponds to reality. “A story may take place on Mars, and the characters may even be Martians, but they must interact in a way that matches our understanding of social interaction, or be motivated to achieve goals that correspond with motives and goals that one might encounter in one’s real world”, write Hamby and colleagues. Fictional narratives, even those which are ‘unrealistic’ or explicitly labelled as fiction, are processed by audiences as if they were real and may elicit comparable persuasive effects to highly realistic stories. These effects may be increased when audiences engage in reflective processes and think about how the lessons or main messages of such fictional stories relate to their own lives.
Benefits of Fiction for P/CVE
Fictional narratives are not more persuasive than non-fictional narratives or non-narrative forms of communication per se. However, in certain situations, they may offer P/CVE actors crucial benefits for the design of effective narrative campaigns against extremism.
- Entertainment: It is a well-known issue that CAN campaigns struggle to generate reach and compete with a large amount of professional entertainment content online. Creating fictional narratives with attractive visuals and an interesting, emotionally impactful storyline may increase the inherent entertainment value such campaigns offer and may potentially provide a route to make P/CVE content more appealing to larger audiences.
- Increased freedom: Non-fiction, by definition, is limited to the reality and experiences of real individuals who share their stories. On the other hand, fictional narratives would enable P/CVE actors to develop whichever story may be most suitable to the campaign’s goals, tweak characters, focus on specific issues, or exaggerate personality traits or dramatic storylines if necessary. Hence, fiction affords increased freedom in choosing exactly how the story should unfold.
- Authenticity: Many discussions on CAN campaigns revolve around the issue of authenticity. It is often recommended that narrative campaigns should be developed with or by members of the desired target audience and should be communicated by ‘credible messengers’ in order to ensure that the campaigns are perceived as authentic representations and correspond to the lifeworld of the audiences. Fiction may alleviate this burden by increasing the freedom P/CVE actors have in designing such narratives. If the setting and the characters are fictional, possibly not even human, then their authenticity does not necessarily depend on a highly accurate and authentic portrayal of the audience’s lifeworld and experiences, but rather on the internal coherence of the narrative. This may afford P/CVE actors the opportunity to circumvent a potential lack of authenticity pertaining to a target audience’s real-life experiences.
- Discussing difficult issues through proxies: CAN campaigns may touch on difficult, potentially controversial issues and are therefore faced with the threat of backlash or of audiences immediately turning away from the content if it does not correspond to their beliefs. Fictional narratives may enable P/CVE actors to discuss difficult issues through proxies, e.g. making a point about racism by showing its effects on the interactions between two alien tribes on a planet far away, or transferring a radicalisation process to a magic fantasy world. By taking the issue out of reality into the realm of fiction, audiences may be more inclined to follow the story and engage with the content due to the higher degree of psychological distance to the controversial issue fictional settings create. Such CANs may serve as a conversation opener on such controversial topics.
Fictional narratives have rarely been used in P/CVE narrative campaigns so far. However, research on the persuasive impact of fictional stories suggests that they are able to shape the perceptions and attitudes of both young and adult audiences. Therefore, an engagement with the promises of fiction could expand and improve both the theoretical basis and the practical design of digital CAN campaigns. It is often lamented that evaluations have failed to produce evidence of substantial positive effects of P/CVE narrative campaigns. A solid understanding of narrative persuasion processes and the benefits digital storytelling approaches to fictional stories may yield could therefore contribute to improving future campaigns by offering P/CVE actors creative leeway in designing CANs. While they may not be the infamous ‘silver bullet’, fictional stories may diversify the P/CVE toolbox and offer promising additional avenues for narrative persuasion campaigns against extremism.