What is a counter-narrative?
A counter-narrative is a message that offers a positive alternative to extremist propaganda or pushes back by deconstructing, delegitimising or demystifying extremist narratives. This could involve;
- Focusing on what we are ‘for’ rather than ‘against’; positive stories about shared values, tolerance, openness, freedom and democracy.
- Highlighting how extremist activities negatively impact on the people they claim to represent.
- Demonstrating the hypocrisy of extremists and how their actions are inconsistent with their own beliefs.
- Picking apart extremist ideologies by undermining their lack of a coherent intellectual framework.
- Emphasising factual inaccuracies used in extremist propaganda and setting the record straight.
- Mocking or satirising extremist propaganda to undermine its credibility.
The term counter-narrative has come to include a wide range of activities, from preventative public awareness campaigns to targeted interventions that discredit the ideologies and actions of violent extremists. This toolkit adopts this broad definition of a “counter-narrative” and is meant for anyone looking to proactively respond to extremist propaganda through messaging.
What are the best methods to research my target audience?
Talk to your audience! The best way of reaching your audience is to speak with them directly if you can. For example, if you are looking to engage with students then reach out to universities, academic staff or student societies and unions ask them what they think about your message or campaign and the kind of content they are likely to engage with.
Remember, you do not need to reinvent the wheel. Contacting organisations or people that have run similar counter-narrative campaigns can also be a useful starting point when researching your target audience. They will have already carried out their own research and should understand how best to reach their audience from their experiences of running and evaluating their campaigns. Take a look at the Case Studies for a few ideas of who you could get in touch with.
Discovering how your target audience interacts on social media and engages with content online will also help you understand how best to reach them. For example, if you are looking into white-supremacists in the US, then extremist chat forums like “Stormfront” can provide a good starting point for uncovering the interests and online behaviours of your audience. This could be the music they listen to, clothes they wear, individuals they respect, or events they attend.
Are former violent extremists good ‘credible messengers’?
Former extremists or “formers” who have “been there, done that” can be a good way to reach radicalised individuals or people viewing extremist content. Although formers might be viewed with some suspicion or anger by those still in extremist movements, they are able to speak to the futility and flaws of violence and extremism. They can describe the grim day-to-day reality of extremist networks and are often best positioned to delegitimise violence promoting narratives based on their own first-hand experiences.
Have a look at the Against Violent Extremism YouTube channel to hear the stories of formers from around the world.
Are survivors of violent extremism good ‘credible messengers’?
The stories of survivors of violent extremism can be powerful counter-narratives. They offer a reminder of the real impact of violence and hatred, and their testimonies serve to de-glamorise and delegitimise terrorist acts perpetrated against ordinary people.
There are many examples of organisations that feature such testimonies, including the Against Violent Extremism Network, the Global Survivors Network, the Network of Associations of Victims of Terrorism or the Forgiveness Project.
What are the risks of using humour within counter-narratives?
Any content, online or offline, will have a chance of being misunderstood or misconstrued. Comedy is no exception! It can be very subjective and not everyone will find the same things funny.
Context is crucial. If you post content satirising an extremist group, this can easily be shared around the world but without people realising who made it or where it comes from. Think about how your content or message could be misinterpreted or cause offence to some audiences. Directly making fun of or humiliating members of an extremist group can also have the unintended effect of emboldening their extreme stance or increasing their feelings of alienation.
Humour should only be used with careful consideration for its impact, but this shouldn’t deter you from attempting to use it. Satire can be a powerful tool for discrediting a message or highlighting hypocrisy, and there are numerous examples of counter-narrative campaigns involving humour that have got the balance just right.
If you plan to reach members of extreme groups with your message, make sure you read through the “How can I stay safe online?” below to make sure you are aware of the safety measures to consider for your campaign.
What are the risks of making a provocative counter-narrative?
Getting a strong reaction from your audience is exactly what you are hoping to achieve with a counter-narrative campaign. You can ask tough questions or feature an emotional message, but you should always seek a positive reaction from your audience. It’s good to be thought provoking and memorable, but try to avoid antagonising or annoying people or just being controversial for the sake of it!
If you plan to reach members of extreme groups with your message make sure you read through the “How can I stay safe online?” question below to make sure you are aware the safety measures to consider for your campaign.
What is a “call to action” and should my campaign include one?
A “call to action” is asking your audience to do something. Whether you want them to watch and share a video or sign a petition, make sure you ask! It’s a simple but essential strategy that can make a real difference to the impact of your counter-narrative campaign.
Should my campaign have an offline aspect?
Connecting your online efforts with your offline activities can help improve the impact of your campaign. Not all campaigns will need to do so however. If for example your message is intended for a reclusive online community then an offline component may not be integral to your campaign. However, if you plan to hold events for your intended audience or campaign at others such as music festivals, street rallies or demonstrations, then make sure you take advantage and combine these efforts with your online campaigning. Social media enables you to bring your offline relationships online and vice-versa. Projects working at a local level may find offline activities and online campaigning complement each other particularly well.
How can I stay safe online?
Unfortunately counter-narrative campaigning can have security implications. Make sure you consider whether you need to take any safety measures to protect those working on or contributing to your campaign, including your messenger. If you plan to reach out to members of extreme groups this is particularly important.
The table below gives a few examples of things to consider, but it is not exhaustive so make sure you take into account your local context.
Are you happy for your counter-narrative to be linked back to you and your organisation?
Are you okay with your organisations’ location being publically available online?
Are you prepared for members of extremist groups contacting your profile pages?
- Avoid using personal email accounts when setting up social media profiles.
- Use secure passwords for all platforms and email addresses.
- Create a new Facebook profile before you create the Facebook page for your campaign.
- Do not respond to comments and responses using your personal accounts.
- If you have a website make sure you have hidden the ownership of your domain and “Whois” information.
- Some social media platforms may include you location when you post. Make sure you turn off any geo-location or geo-tagging settings on all the platforms you use.
- Do not include location of organisation in the ‘About’ sections of any of your social media platforms.
- Use a qualified interventionist to engage with extremists who contact your profiles.
- Avoid giving any personal details about you or your organisation that may put you at risk.
- Avoid using personal email accounts when setting up social media profiles.
Where can I find funding for my campaign?
Although not essential, finding funding for your campaign can be a great way of achieving greater success and reaching more people with your counter-narrative message. There are hundreds of potential funders out there, each with their own priorities, conditions and eligibility requirements so it’s often worth spending a bit of time to find the ones that are right for you and your proposed campaign.
Below are some options you could explore:
- Government funding may be available to you. This could be at the national, regional or local level in your country or from international governmental organisations. Government funding may not however be right for some organisations, campaigns or messages, so think carefully about how it could affect your credibility with your audience.
- Civil society foundations or charitable and philanthropic organisations can be a great source of funding for counter-narrative campaigns. They bring credibility that governments can lack in some contexts and often have great links at the local grassroots level.
- Academic or research funding can be a potential option for some, especially if you plan to pilot a new methodology or carry out extensive testing or in-depth evaluations.
- Private sector organisations are increasingly getting involved in countering extremism. Many of the leading tech and social media companies are involved with fighting back against extremists using their products or networks. For example, Google offers its Ad Grants programme to provide monthly in-kind advertising support to charities in various countries.
- Crowdfunding websites are another option for supporting your campaign. There are loads of sites out there that offer slightly different options so think about which site is best for your campaign. Some sites like Rally are free and are largely aimed at non-profits or charities. Others like Start Some Good are all-or-nothing - any money raised will be returned to donors if the campaign does not reach at least 25% of its overall goal. Beware that some of the most popular sites, like Kickstarter, require you to offer material rewards for donations. If you are creating a physical product as part of your campaign, such as a comic book, then a site like this might be the best option for you.
- It can also be worth asking professional tech, content or campaigning experts or companies whether they might be willing to help you with pro-bono or in-kind support. This could simply be advice and feedback, a reduced rate for their services, or they may even help you out for free if they like your campaign and you ask nicely!
Can I find examples of successful counter-narrative campaigns?
Yes! Take a look through our Case Studies and use the filter option to find out about other counter-narrative campaigns that you can learn from.