How feasible is a counter-narrative in preventing radicalisation?

How feasible is a counter-narrative in preventing radicalisation?

For those who work to stop radicalisation from happening, the feasibility of what is termed a ‘counter-narrative’ usually divides the room. How feasible is it to challenge something as complex and meaningful as a narrative?

The idea of ‘countering’ a person’s adherence to an extremist ideology has occasionally been compared to countering a person’s support for a particular football team. If you find meaning and cognitive respite in supporting Manchester United, is it likely that attempts to undercut that team’s supremacy will convince you otherwise? Indeed, wars have been waged over a lot less. Here, the findings of a laboratory-based experiment which explores the potential for counter-narratives in the context of radicalisation-prevention will be discussed. The role of cognition will also be considered, asking the question, how much does our capacity for critical reflection determine the processing of narrative-related information?

Those pesky, extremist narratives

As human beings, we are predisposed to understanding and describing our worlds as stories. Our childhoods, careers, even what we had for breakfast fall into that recognizable ‘beginning’, ‘middle’ and ‘end’ format. In many ways, this serves an important function in terms of self-storying and meaning making but, for this and other reasons, we don’t tend to critically appraise messages embedded in stories. Nobody watches The Lion King and thinks, “this is ridiculous, lions can’t talk”. Whilst this isn’t problematic for most narratives, it is concerning in the context of radicalisation, where a compelling narrative, network and psychological vulnerability tend to underpin the process.

It is in this early phase of radicalisation that the counter-narrative strategy is designed to operate. Surely, if terrorist organizations can disseminate their problematic rhetoric to the masses, an intervention can be deployed which challenges the themes intrinsic to these stories, rendering them less effective?

The emergence of laboratory-based experiments in counter-narrative research

Whilst intuitive, it has been noted by colleagues such as Alistair Reed that the concept of a counter-narrative lacks an empirical grounding, and likely requires a great deal of theoretical complexity in order to work as intended. A systematic review and meta-analysis published last year found that, beyond having no effect, counter-narrative strategies deployed in the absence of a clear, theoretical framework have the potential to have exacerbating effects on risk factors for radicalisation. Not ideal.

The last number of years have seen a shift towards developing the counter-narrative concept, with a focus on two important areas: theory and testing. Researchers, such as Kurt Braddock, for example, have paved the way for laboratory-based experimentation which incorporates existing, robust theoretical frameworks into their design. In a recent paper published in Terrorism and Political Violence, researchers at Leiden University and the National University of Ireland, Galway sought to do the same thing.

One hundred and fifty undergraduate students were exposed to a fabricated, pro-Hamas narrative that was designed to trigger their feelings of legitimization for terrorist violence. To tease out the counter-narrative idea, some were exposed to a generic counter-narrative which offered rational, counterarguments to Hamas’ use of violence. Others were advised to do this themselves, creating their own tailored counter-narrative to the content. Not only was the tailored approach found to be more effective, but interesting interactions occurred when participants’ capacity for critical thinking was taken into account.

“Let me think about this carefully”

Although we like to think we are very analytical creatures, our capacity for critical thinking varies greatly. Before the experiment, participants were given a number of brain-teasers from the ‘Cognitive Reflection Test’ to determine just how much they engage with these skills. This test assesses peoples’ ability to suppress intuitive and spontaneous wrong answers in favor of reflective and deliberative right answers. Irrespective of their score, the tailored counter-narrative worked just as effectively, likely because it forced participants to ‘switch on’. However, for those exposed to the generic counter-narrative, a ‘resistant response’ was observed amongst those with the highest cognitive reflection scores.

Upon exposure to generic efforts to counter the Hamas narrative, the supposed critical thinkers ended up legitimizing Hamas’ use of violence more than if they’d been exposed to nothing at all. The low critical thinkers didn’t quite boomerang, but they weren’t overly inspired by the generic approach compared to those in the tailored condition. In other words, the generic counter-narrative interacted disastrously with cognitive reflection, in some cases making the whole thing worse.

Although the findings from this experiment demonstrate how challenging it is to counter an extremist narrative, they nonetheless provide support for autonomous approaches which engage an audience. Such approaches are more likely to work, irrespective of variances in cognitive ability. Indeed, whilst a superior cognitive ability is often hailed as the antidote to radicalisation, these findings also paint a more complex picture of the role of cognitive reflection in the processing of narrative-related information. Should we consider that, beyond having no effect, generic counter-narratives have the potential to have exacerbating effects? And, if so, should we go back to the ‘soft measures’ drawing board?