A successful counter-narrative campaign plan can be broken down into four fundamental questions: who is your audience, what is your message, what medium are you going to use and who will be the messenger. It is important to think about all of these – you can’t bake a cake without all the right ingredients!
Understanding your target audience is the first important consideration when planning a successful campaign strategy. Who are you trying to influence through your campaign? Do you want your audience to learn something from your campaign or take action to fight extremism? Your campaign should focus on one main audience. For example you may want to:
- Create a preventative campaign educating a broader audience. This could be young people, parents, teachers or other practitioners working with youth in your community.
- Reach a more specific age or gender group such as young women aged 18-25, or teenagers between 14-18.
- Reach young people watching or searching for extremist content online who could be on the cusp of radicalisation.
- Target members of online extremist groups or followers of known extremist accounts.
You may want to reach more than one audience with your campaign but be careful not to be too ambitious and aim to reach everybody. Be as specific as possible when thinking of who exactly is in your target audience. Who might an extremist group target for recruitment? Who in your community might be important in countering radicalisation? Who are the followers of popular extremist accounts online? Often that’s the same audience you can think about reaching.
A helpful exercise might be to draw-up a “bio” of a typical member of your audience. This could be a teenage male living in the UK who is regularly engaging with white-power music and videos, and is an active member of online far-right communities on both Facebook and YouTube. Alternatively your typical audience member might be a mother with teenage children or a social worker that wants to learn more about the radicalisation process.
The characteristics of your audience should determine the message, the medium, and the messenger for your campaign. It is vital that you know who they are. Think about the following:
- What message do you want to get across?
- What types of messages are likely to appeal to your audience?
- What medium does your audience prefer? Do they watch a lot of videos on YouTube or spend all day sharing photos on Instagram?
- Who might your audience listen to?
Put yourself in the shoes of your target audience. What message, medium, and messenger will be most effective when creating a counter-narrative campaign tailored for them?
Once you’ve decided on your audience you need a “story” to tell them. A story is a message with a purpose. At a basic level your message should speak with your audience, not at them. Creating a message that says “extremism is bad” or “this extremist group is bad” without offering a positive alternative or an explanation why is not the best option. The most effective messages don’t sound like they’re lecturing the audience - they offer something to think about and reflect on.
There are a number of ways to achieve this:
- Deconstruct, discredit and demystify an extremist message with facts
- Make an emotional appeal to the audience to consider the impact of extremism and violence
- Undermine extremist propaganda through satire or humour
- Choose a specific aspect of an extremist narrative to counter or undermine
- Offer a positive alternative message or narrative
It’s definitely worth thinking about what your audience will gain from your message. Do you want to encourage critical thinking in young people and boost their understanding of the intent behind extremist content online? Are you looking to challenge prejudicial behaviour or attitudes towards other races or religions? Or are you attempting to highlight the hypocrisy of an extremist group or ideology?
Thinking about the answers to these questions will give you a more comprehensive understanding of how to craft your message and the best medium or “packaging” to deliver it to your audience.
Once you’ve thought about the message you want to send to your target audience you’ll want to decide how you package it. A counter-narrative campaign could be made up of one or more mediums. Some examples are:
- Videos: short films or animations
- Text: slogans, hashtags or open letters
- Images: photos or memes
- Online literature: brochures or informative posters
- Audio recording: podcasts or short audio-clip
- Comics: manga, short panels or graphic novels
Extremist groups are becoming increasingly more skilful at producing attractive and interesting content so we must do the same. You’re not just competing with extremist content but also everything else out there (mostly cat videos) for the attention of your audience!
Female character from Suleiman Bakhit’s counter-extremism manga book, Princess Heart
The medium you choose can be as imaginative and creative as you like, as long as it appeals to your audience. Think closely about who you want to reach. What kinds of content they tend to watch, and how you plan to get your message across. You also need to consider how much time you will have and the resources you will have available for your campaign in terms of funding or expertise. If your budget is small and time is short, keep it simple! A short, well produced 10 second video for example can be cost-effective but very powerful.
For information on which platforms to use to reach your target audience go to Promote a Campaign.
It is important to have a messenger that your audience will find credible to convey your message. Think of the messenger and message like a song. The lyrics might be powerful but the singer also needs a good voice! Who is your audience likely to trust, be inspired by or listen to? There are many possible effective messengers for each audience but some examples could be:
- Former extremists
- Survivors of extremism
- Respected organisations, charities, or projects relevant to who you want to reach
- Individuals who your audience respects such as sporting figures, musicians or actors
- Influential and respected faith, community or youth leaders and activists
The Against Violent Extremism (AVE) network is a good place to look for people that might be able to help!
There are a couple of security considerations for you to think about. It may be that none of these matter to you, but it’s better to be safe than sorry:
- Are you okay for your campaign to be linked back to you or your organisation?
- Are you happy for your organisation to be visible online?
- Are you prepared for members of extremist groups to contact you?
- Have you taken into the account the safety of your messenger or others that may be featured in your content?
Exit USA is a programme of Life After Hate. It uses the experiences of former far-right extremists in the United States to offer a way out.
Understanding how your audience acts online and offline will help you figure out who they are and how best to reach them. To better understand your audience you could:
- Have a look at how your audience interacts online, where they go and what they are really interested, in or even set up a social media profile mirroring your audience to see how content is advertised at that demographic.
- Explore relevant content or profiles that your target audience may be engaging with online.
- Learn from former extremists about why extremist messaging appealed to them, how they found it and which online platforms are being used by extremists for recruitment.
- If possible, involve your audience! If you want to reach youth, ask them what they think.
Having researched your audience you should be able to produce a short description of the demographic characteristics, languages, locations, interests and online behaviours of your target audience. The AVE network is full of people that can help you to identify interests based on their knowledge and first-hand experience.
Once you have looked into your audience and understand them a little more you should be able to think of a detailed “profile” of who they might be. For example:
Mark is an unemployed 18 year old living in a town in England. He was introduced by an older friend to the racist underground music scene. He has started to like the Facebook profiles of bands such as “Skrewdriver” and “Skullhead”, and join closed neo-Nazi groups. Mark is increasingly exposed to more neo-Nazi propaganda and an online community willing to teach him more about the “scene”. Secret gigs are advertised on these closed groups and these events provide the next step in introducing Mark to an ‘offline’ community that is violent towards minority groups.
A screenshot of a music video from far-right British band, Skullhead. Once you find one video like this, it’s easy to find more!
There are often many layers or themes in the narratives of extremist groups. It’s difficult to address them all in one go. Instead, be focused on which aspect of the narrative you want to counter. For example, if you are countering an Islamist-extremist group such as ISIS or al-Shabaab, they will use a mixture of theological, political and cultural themes in their narratives. It may be a big task to try to address these issues in one campaign.
Creating a counter-narrative that gets your target audience to think a little more about just one or two of these may be more suitable and easier to manage. To help you decide what you are going to counter you’ll need to consider what it is about the extremist narrative that people can be drawn to, and how does extremist propaganda achieve the effect it is aiming for in its target audience.
Setting achievable goals and objectives will help you focus your counter-narrative campaign and give you the opportunity to evaluate your success. Some campaigns often have goals and objectives that are too broad and not realistically achievable with the resources available. Not every campaign will “go viral”, but if you focus on your specific target audience then they do not necessarily need to.
Instead, try to set an overarching goal for your campaign and a series of more specific, measurable and achievable objectives. For example, your goal might be teaching young people in your town about some of the recruitment tactics used by extremists. Your objectives might then be getting 5000 views and 100 shares of your video on YouTube from your audience, putting up 100 posters around town and in schools, and having 200 students attend screenings of the video and share the campaign via their social media accounts.
Depending on the type of campaign, you may also want to seek positive traditional media coverage as this can be a good way to amplify your message.
So that you can learn from your campaign make sure you are able to evaluate your success. Most social media platforms have in-built analytics that allow you to monitor your campaign and determine whether you met your online objectives. If you have a website you can use Google Analytics or other similar services.
Remember, your goals are there to guide the campaign and keep it focused on your original purpose. Your objectives explain how you will meet your goals, and remind you of your tactics, give you targets to aim for, and provide a way to evaluate your success.
All successful campaigns need resources but there are plenty of examples of successful campaigns run on a shoe-string as well as failed campaigns with huge budgets. If you have a limited budget then make sure you make the most of what you have – a great idea backed by passion and commitment can go a long way!
If you are lucky enough to have funding for your campaign don’t go crazy – make sure you have decided where the money will be best spent, have carefully allocated specific amounts for specific aspects of the campaign (content production versus promotion and distribution) and keep accurate records of what you have spent. Try to maintain some flexibility with your budget however so that you can remain responsive to changes in costs or requirements during the production process and alter your tactics during the campaign if needed.
Although creating the right content is important, it’s vital to be able to reach your audience. Try to avoid being in the position where you have great content but a limited budget to promote it, or you reach a lot of people but they are not receptive to your message!