While Harry Potter and his friends could use their magic abilities to defend the world against the dark arts, efforts against radicalization and extremism in the real world must rely on non-magic skills, most prominently (strategic) communications. Narrative campaigns challenging extremist ideas and propagating positive, alternative visions are an increasingly important tool in the efforts to prevent and counter radicalization. So far, however, such campaigns have largely omitted fictional elements, despite ample evidence that fictitious stories hold considerable persuasive power and have inherent benefits that could support narrative efforts against extremism.
“Every culture bathes its children in stories”, writes American psychologist Jonathan Haidt, to entertain them but also to teach them the fundamental values and social norms of the society they are growing up in. As research shows, from Sesame Street to Harry Potter, it is difficult to find stories written for children, which do not relay a deeper message of friendship, tolerance trumping differences, justice, and inclusion with the goal of shaping both attitude and behavior. In other words, most children’s books and TV programs are entertainment education, at least partially aimed at persuading and shaping perceptions. Adults tend to perceive themselves to be mostly unaffected by the stories they consume, especially when those stories are fictional. However, there is ample evidence to the contrary. Adults’ perceptions, attitudes, values, and behaviors are also influenced by the narratives they are exposed to, from attitudes towards stigmatized groups to perceptions of crime and behavior at the stock market. Importantly, this holds true even when content is specifically labeled as fiction, suggesting that it is not perceived realism driving the persuasive effects of such narratives. Fictional stories also drive far-reaching societal change, such as the TV show Modern Family influencing attitudes on same-sex marriage, and inspire real-life activism, such as the Harry Potter Alliance and other groups tackling societal and political problems.
In short, fictional narratives have persuasive effects, shape attitudes, and influence behavior of mature viewers and readers, not only of children. Given the persuasive power of such stories, it is surprising that fictional storytelling has been largely absent from narrative campaigns against extremism, one of the most challenging communications problems in our society. Efforts in preventing and countering (violent) extremism (P/CVE) have utilized narrative approaches, especially by enabling former extremists and victims to tell their stories, in order to contest extremist narratives. However, these narrative campaigns are almost exclusively realistic stories and do not contain fictional elements. Although it has been recognized that part of the appeal of extremist propaganda are their narratives, telling, for instance, grand tales of utopian societies and using the emotional appeal of comic book plots, this knowledge has not translated into mirroring these elements in stories against extremism. We are not only lacking an ‘epic story’, we are overlooking the benefits of fiction and its potential contribution to the appeal of our narrative campaigns. In the following, three major benefits will be presented.
Low external realism
Narratives generally hold persuasive power, partially because audiences are less likely to counter-argue and resist against arguments displayed in story form. Fictional narratives, however, may hold additional benefits for those developing P/CVE campaigns.
Firstly, fiction allows greater creative freedom in the story content. Current narrative campaigns are usually high in external realism, i.e. they are developed to correspond closely to the reality and lifeworld of the target audiences. This necessitates in-depth knowledge of or – as often requested – the collaboration with individuals who belong to the target audience in order to be perceived as realistic. Despite critical dissenting voices, it is still mostly believed that, for instance, only young Muslims with an immigration background can adequately tell stories pertaining to the experiences of young Muslim immigrants, whereas those not part of this group cannot tell authentic narratives to this audience because they lack an understanding of the external realism this groups experiences.
Fiction can ease the burden of authenticity and external realism for such campaigns or, perhaps more accurately, create a different type of authenticity precisely not rooted in external realism. Fictional characters and settings, which do not correspond closely to reality, afford the opportunity to tell stories even when target audiences cannot be included. Authenticity can be created within the fictional storyworld by telling of emotional states, relationships, and issues viewers will be able to relate to regardless of their immediate context. Hamby and colleagues write: “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.”
Fictional characters, their emotions, and the problems they face must be relatable, but they must not look and speak like the target audience and may even be non-human as Pixar and Disney movies prove. For persuasion, it is the relatability of the content that counts, not homophily in appearance. Non-human characters may sometimes even make identification easier, because, contrary to watching human characters, no viewer questions their similarity to them based on their physical features but focuses on psychological proximity. Therefore, as long as the emotions and issues such as an identity crisis, social exclusion, or perceived injustice might lead to radicalization are relatable, they must not be told through ‘realistic’ characters to persuade audiences and change their views.
Secondly, fictional narratives allow storytellers to over-emphasize or exaggerate certain issues. Although, as we have seen, fictional characters can be very relatable and elicit a high degree of emotional involvement and identification, the perceived distance between viewer and character is nevertheless more pronounced than in a highly realistic narrative with a peer protagonist. This distance may allow ‘comic exaggerations’ to highlight the importance of a particular topic. While highly realistic non-fiction runs the risk of appearing mocking or gimmicky when exaggerating, fictional narratives frequently do so without provoking negative reactions in viewers, e.g. in cartoons. Therefore, it may be possible to make stronger argumentative points in fictional narratives without creating backlash.
In addition, the perceived distance to the fictional characters may also allow discussions of very difficult, contentious issues in narrative campaigns. For instance, while certain viewers may reject any realistic account of racism and discrimination, which would necessitate questioning of their preconceived beliefs, a narrative portraying the discriminatory practices of two alien tribes on a planet far away may not be dismissed as easily because the psychological distance to the setting is larger than in realistic accounts. By being perceived as ‘just a story’, fictional narratives can circumvent the psychological barriers or previous beliefs. That audiences are more than capable to then transfer insights from the fictional to the real world, has been shown, for instance, in the context of the ‘mud blood’ issue in Harry Potter. Children were able to transfer the lesson that prejudice and discrimination of mud bloods is not okay to real-life settings, such as interaction with immigrants.
Who is perceived to be the messenger?
Thirdly, fictional elements allow actors developing P/CVE campaigns to play with the often-discussed issue of credible messengers. The assumption in many guidelines for counter-narrative development, the need for ‘credible’ message senders, often formers, local NGOs or peers of the target audience, is emphasized. In fictional narratives, the sender is less easily identifiable. Who is the message sender in your favorite book, TV show or theatrical play? The writer, the producer, the actor? How often do we think about who wrote the plot for the content we are watching or reading? Probably less often than we do in non-fictional narratives. Even more telling, audiences develop parasocial relationships with their favorite fictional TV show characters, upholding the illusion of interaction with the hero on screen. When watching a movie or reading a book, we may feel as though the fictional characters are talking to us and are ‘sending’ the message, something that has also been observed in viewers of an anti-ISIS TV series.
This is not a call to conceal the actual message senders. It may not be necessary to do so, because in fictional stories, the audience’s perception of who is speaking to them may shift naturally from the ‘real’ messenger to the fictional character they are engaging with. This is likely to be beneficial, given the heated debate on who should and should not be considered an effective messenger for narrative campaigns against extremism.
Fictional narratives are not a sliver bullet, which will solve the problem of radicalization and extremism. As so many other measures employed to mitigate the risk of radicalization processes, they are but one piece of a larger puzzle and one possible tool in the counter-extremism ‘toolbox’.
If used wisely, i.e. in campaigns with high-quality storytelling, fictional elements can support the persuasive appeal of narrative campaigns against extremism and, as discussed, afford those who develop such campaigns with previously unexploited creative leeway. Fictional narratives can be just as persuasive as non-fiction even when it is evident that they are non-realistic accounts and hold substantial benefits for the storytelling approaches of narrative campaigns against extremism. Therefore, actors involved in P/CVE narrative campaigns would be ill-advised to omit fictional elements in their efforts.
To mitigate the appeal of extremists’ stories, we do not simply need one good counter-story; we need a large variety of such stories to match the audiences’ preferences for style and genre and to balance the benefits and drawbacks of both fictional and realistic storytelling in our ‘toolbox’. Fictional stories can increase the variety in P/CVE storytelling approaches and support the persuasive impact of narrative campaigns. As some researchers argue, “the greatest magic of Harry Potter” is his positive influence on perceptions of prejudice and injustice despite being designed as entertainment content. Maybe it is time, the P/CVE Muggles step up their narrative game.
This blog piece is partially based on the author’s article “Storytelling against extremism: How fiction could increase the persuasive impact of counter- and alternative narratives in P/CVE” published in the Journal for Deradicalization on June 25, 2021.