This is a guest post from Dr. Sybille Reinke de Buitrago, who is a Researcher and Project Manager of “VIDEOSTAR – Video-based Strategies Against Radicalization” at PolAk Nds, the Academy of Police Science and Criminology, Germany. Her research focuses on processes of identity, perception, emotions and discourse in security policy and international relations.

With the multitude of ‘stuff’ anyone can say online, why does it matter what someone says? It depends. When it comes to extremists posting content, we should be concerned, because spreading hatred online can incite actual violence. Radicalization narratives online then do matter. In the face of enormous challenges regarding digital communication, societal cohesion and political stability, we need to understand such narratives, and we need effective ways of countering them. 

Radicalization is a multidimensional process involving actors, ideas, political aims, means, and an audience. For extremists, social media has become a key tool to convey their ideas and ideologies, but also to recruit followers and to mobilize. Of course, offline contact remains important, but initial contact often comes online, and can be deepened there. Extremists want to create interest and attention; they offer strategic narratives that exploit tensions in society. Picking at those issues that are problematic, they target people who feel disillusioned or alienated from society. They also aim at emotions. They heavily color their claims and demands emotionally, utilizing emotional and identity needs we all have. The emotional framing does not only create interest, it also matters because the emotionalization of Self and Other – of ingroup and outgroup – is a tool to create dichotomy and antagonism between groups. 

How do extremists talk in social media?

An analysis of current radicalization narratives in YouTube focusing on Germany and Europe (Project VIDEOSTAR – Video-based Strategies against Radicalization) sheds some light on this question. The insights point to how extremists attempt to create division, antagonism, and feelings of threat. Islamist narratives tend to portray Europe and the West at large as negative and threatening places for Muslims. They frame the West as bad place to live in for ‘true’ Muslims and as threat to the Muslim community as a whole. The claim is that Muslims cannot be ‘true’ Muslims in the West. 

Islamist narratives heavily criticize Western media, and they portray state institutions as working to weaken a Muslim way of life. Narratives purposefully exploit discrimination experiences of Muslims, aiming to polarize and create antagonism. Such narratives reject any Western identity, and offer and appeal instead to a separate Muslim identity. Even topics of daily concern of young people are exploited, such as difficulties in school or with parents. For complex problems and for any issue of contention in society, Islamists offer as solution a simplified version of what they call the ‘true’ way of life for any Muslim. Linked is the call on all Muslims to defend their Muslim ‘rights’, community, and religion – according to the particular Islamist group’s narrative. 

Right-wing extremist/populist narratives, on the other side, focus on the claimed threat coming from refugees and migrants, and migration overall. Narratives portray refugees and migrants as threat to Europe, its culture, democracy and the Western way of life. An ‘Islamization’ of Europe is said to occur, with the Orient endangering the Occident. The framing is that this ‘Islamization’ threatens the European home and their populations, as well as liberal societies and values. ‘Native’ populations in Europe will supposedly soon feel as strangers in their own land. Narratives claim, for example, that in the case of Germany the German state is already catering to the needs of Muslims and other migrants more than to those of the native population. 

Another key theme of right-wing extremists/populists is the claimed threat for European women coming from Muslim men. By exaggerating instances of sexual violence by Muslim men in number and intensity, they aim to create fear and outrage, as well as mobilization for their ideas. Narratives also strongly criticize media and the state. All critical voices are subsumed under the so-called mainstream media that collude with state institutions. The state is blamed for the ‘chaos’ during the refugee crisis, for ‘out of control’-migration, and for not protecting Europeans. For example, due to its migration policy the German government is held responsible for the claimed new threat to German women. Narratives then call on German women to defend themselves. Not only migrants but also the state ‘become’ the enemy.

Thus, both Islamist and right-wing extremist/populist narratives heavily rely on the creation and use of dichotomies, and on manipulation to create fear. The focus on dichotomies is problematic. The absolute rejection of an identity that is more diverse or open, and the appeal to a more closed and homogeneous identity serve polarization and division. Whereas Islamist narratives call upon all Muslims to join an expanding Muslim community apart from mainstream society, right-wing narratives offer both nostalgic and modern versions of a homogeneous home closed to other influences. When narratives utilize dichotomies to spread fear and hatred, they can foster actual violence – as observable in recent events across Europe.

How can we counter extremist narratives?

We are still learning about how we may effectively counter extremist narratives. Furthermore, the actual effectiveness of counternarratives is hard to measure. The insights above, however, point to some ways forward. There is clearly a need to deconstruct extremists’ interpretations. We need to deconstruct their claims, conclusions, and calls for action. Since extremists try to sow division in societies, policymakers and society must answer with a transparent and sober discussion of existing problems, and authentic solutions. False truth claims must be uncovered, interpretations of an issue from apparently logical responses disentangled, and the misuse of emotional and identity appeals illustrated.

Policymakers and society should engage in making extremists’ narratives and their strategies and objectives transparent. We also need counternarratives that reach various audiences, thus counternarratives in multiple approaches, formats, and aesthetics, even if there are always potential side effects of further marginalization. The use of humor is contested, but humor can be useful in illustrating contradictions in extremist narratives and behavior, and thereby weakening credibility. Effective counternarratives need speakers that transport authenticity, legitimacy and charisma. They should be an expert on the topic in question, or they may be someone popular in music or sports who can garner attention. 

Furthermore, it is significant that counternarratives address audiences on an emotional level. Whereas extremists try to build fear, counternarratives can work with positive emotions and offer an empowering reading of existing challenges. Research also shows that positive messages that are for rather than against something get a better reception among young people. We then need counternarratives within a liberal, democratic frame that speak to young people and that strengthen their sense of capacity and passion about issues.

Strengthening social media competence is a related area for action, as it would strengthen resilience against manipulation attempts. Social media users should be aware of how algorithms work, of the impact of their viewing behavior, and what an echo chamber is. User should be able to reflect when a discussion becomes limited and extreme, and how content is made to evoke emotions. Efforts to foster reflection and debate are also significant for pluralism and diversity. When discussing issues on social media, users should also check with how their friends in the offline space see those issues. Greater social media competence is not only significant vis-à-vis online extremism, but also for how we can address the challenges of social media and the transformations in public and political communication. 

Thus, in countering extremists’ messages and objectives, we can and should work with positive messages in order to foster engagement and participation in the solving of problems. Such efforts, when including all of society, can go some way against extremism. Efforts should also include active engagement of and discussions with young people themselves about what is important for them; this may be done in schools, for example. Mixed approaches of online and offline efforts that include all areas of society would seem to best foster tolerance and cohesion. 

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