Extremists use social media to spread hateful narratives and propaganda - state actors, NGOs, and young activists are trying to fight this by telling counter-narratives. But how effective is this? | Photo: PRIF

Counter-narratives – curse or blessing?

Taking stock of the increased spread of extremist narratives – especially on social media – the search for appropriate counter-measures intensifies. Consequently, the formulation and dissemination of so-called counter-narratives is often discussed as one possible approach to weaken extremist influence. While there are good reasons in favor of counter-narratives, they also come with risks and uncertainties. This article outlines essential pros and cons for their use in social media and provides insights into the current state of research on the effects of counter-narratives. Finally, it makes a proposal for a balanced approach: Counter-narratives may not be the only cure for extremism, but can serve as an effective tool for prevention and de-radicalization.

All just narratives?

Braddock and Horgan define narratives as “any cohesive and coherent account of events with an identifiable beginning, middle, and end about characters engaged in actions that result in questions or conflicts for which answers or resolutions are provided”. Opposing positions to such narratives are called “counter-narratives”. Generally, counter-narratives are understood as messages that explicitly address extremist content regardless of their specific ideological strand. In contrast, “alternative narratives” convey positive content and promote tolerance, diversity and mutual understanding. This article is based on a broad understanding of counter-narratives, which includes both the level of argumentation and action, while also considering the development of alternative narratives as a possible component. Counter-narratives are thus narratives and/or activities that question, challenge or delegitimize other narratives and can also construct alternative narratives. There are various ways in which counter-narratives can be applied. Messengers can range from state actors, civil society actors such as NGOs to young activists. The tools, channels and content also vary depending on the audience. This article focuses especially on counter-narratives on the web.

Countering counter-narratives

A brief review of the literature on radicalization prevention reveals a recent increase of publications on counter-narratives. In addition to supportive articles, practical examples and handbooks, there are numerous critical arguments.

The paucity of research to date on the effects of counter-narratives is an aspect mentioned not only by opponents but also by supporters. Counter-narratives are only marginally examined in the context of research on extremism and propaganda. Consequently, we still miss a systematic empirical analysis of counter-narratives and their effects. Besides, it often remains unclear how and whether “counter-narratives are an effective method”. So far, “there are no comprehensive guidelines or a toolkit to officially establish effective counter-narratives”. In addition to the paucity of research, the few existing studies are criticized for not being able to measure effectiveness. Proof of causality in social media, for example, is only possible to a limited extent, since only the actual online activities of people and not their attitudes can be observed. Furthermore, a change in the person’s mindset could also be due to numerous (interrelated) factors other than counter-narratives into which the researcher has no insight. In addition, technical barriers are also apparent in the dissemination of counter-narratives due to the way social media work. Since largely unknown but influential algorithms still often determine who can see which content, counter-narratives do not always reach the intended target group.

Another point of critique is based on hitherto vague findings on the effects of counter-narratives. According to some studies, arguments that are formulated directly against an ideology are generally less successful. These kinds of “direct counter-narratives risk being simply considered to be typical Western and politically correct propaganda” and by this have a counterproductive effect. This is accompanied by the strong criticism of, similar to extremist narratives, counter-narratives being dogmatic themselves. This raises the question of the legitimacy of counter-narratives. Seen in this light, counter-narratives are hegemonic attempts at order that do not automatically represent legitimate means of fighting extremism, but should rather be critically examined. Last but not least, counter-narratives have a demarcation effect. They can thus be understood as an expression of rejection, exclusion and stigmatization, which tends to encourage a turn towards extremist groups which is exactly the opposite of the goal.

Opposing extremists: The potential of counter-narratives

However, apart from these critical arguments, there are also strong points in favor of using counter-narratives. These are particularly visible when pointing to the characteristics of the online world which offers an ideal space for the dissemination of propaganda. Especially young people are among the most important target groups of online mobilization efforts of extremists, whose recruiting activities on the Internet and social media have increased in recent years. This is one of the reasons why it is argued, one should not stand idly by. A simple deletion of extremist content is not enough, especially since the responsibility between the state and private social network providers often remains blurred and such interventions could reinforce the actors’ perception of state repression and censorship. It is therefore essential not only to eliminate but to counteract extremist narratives. Proponents of counter-narratives emphasize that it is both sensible and urgent to give the peaceful, democratic majority one or many voices, also on the net.

Counter-narratives can expose and discredit extremist content as propaganda and by this oppose toxic narratives. While doing so, they can, for example, deconstruct a negative image or stigmatization of a particular religion or political ideology created by extremists. As a further positive effect, advocates of counter-narratives argue that the exposure of ideological interpretations that are on the one hand selective and on the other narrow-minded can prevent extremists from gaining control over the exegesis of texts. For example, a study by the German Federal Criminal Police Office shows that although videos against extremism do not lead to a poor rating of propaganda videos or reduce approval of extremist statements, they still have an indirect positive effect by promoting a tolerant and democratic society and increasing the attractiveness of counter-activism.

Finally, counter-narratives are more than just counter-arguments. The dissemination of alternative world views and interpretations also functions as a form of democracy promotion: a critical discussion and reflection is stimulated. In this way, counter-narratives not only fulfill the function of counter-speech, but also take a preventive form. If prevention is broadly understood as democracy building, the dissemination of democratic values with the help of counter-narratives also represents a preventive effort.

A middle way: neither banishing nor idolizing

Consequently, our appeal is not to ban counter-narratives from the repertoire of preventive measures. Instead, they can be embedded as one strategy within a broader approach to tackle extremist narratives. To prevent counter-narratives from taking on the function of “counter-propaganda”, they should always be marked as an alternative way of interpretation. Their strength and preventive potential lies in emphasized pluralism, solidarity and democracy. In this way, counter-narratives can be an effective solution as they can stimulate reflection and discussion instead of tabooing.

However, there are always dangers such as stigmatization, exclusion and normative dogmatism to be considered when using counter-narratives. For this reason, counter-narratives should be designed in a culturally and religion-sensitive manner and be accompanied by scientific impact research. Of great importance is the further development and application of guidelines. As always, context matters: consequently, when developing and disseminating counter-narratives, the target group, the messengers, the content and quality of the narratives as well as the dissemination channels and effective techniques must be taken into account.


This Article has also been published as part of the GNET Blog series. 

Manjana Sold

Manjana Sold is a research associate at PRIF and in the PANDORA project network. Her research focuses on the role of the Internet in radicalization processes and the connection between virtual and real-world radicalization.
Hande Abay Gaspar

Hande Abay Gaspar

Hande Abay Gaspar ist wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin im Programmbereich Transnationale Akteure an der HSFK und arbeitet im Projektverbund PANDORA. Ihre Forschungsschwerpunkte umfassen Radikalisierung und hierbei vor allem realweltliche Radikalisierungsprozesse und die Interaktion zwischen virtueller und realer Welt.

Manjana Sold

Manjana Sold is a research associate at PRIF and in the PANDORA project network. Her research focuses on the role of the Internet in radicalization processes and the connection between virtual and real-world radicalization.

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