Building a narrative against violent extremism

Intervention of Juanfer F. Caldeín, OIET’s director, in the European Parlament, at the first ALDE Group seminar of 2016 on building a narrative against violent extremism.

The title of the roundtable discussion that we have at hand today evolves around the creation of counter-narratives through strategies and practices which are developed in local environments. My intervention will be based on the work carried out by the International Observatory on Terrorism Studies, which stems from the Victims of Terrorism Collective, COVITE, and on the work that COVITE has performed in the Basque Country during the past two years to fight against the radicalisation promoted by ETA and its political branch.

Before highlighting the importance of different sign agents performing their tasks locally, first of all it is important to mention some key considerations that are vital to face a phenomenon that, now more than ever, is a problem that needs to be addressed from the point of view of strategic communication; a discipline that until now has only been applied to politics and digital marketing.

The aim of terrorism, whether domestic, transnational, international or global, is to coaction its opponents with fear and, in most cases, attract new adépts. Terrorism differs from other types of violence in that the performance of its violence is planned with the aim of attracting the attention of the target mainly through mass communication media. However, the scenario has changed. Whereas journalism has played a key role in the structure of the communication plan of a terrorist group up until now, organisations such as Daesh have clearly demonstrated that that conception is well out of date.

As professor and expert of the Observatory Javier Jordan has appointed, before the attacks of the 11th of September 2001, there were only a dozen of web sites that supported the jihadist ideology. In 2010, there were over five thousand. Nowadays, entities like Daesh have over thirty producers creating high quality audiovisual products. In 23 months, and, citing researcher and journalist Javier Lesaca, Daesh has promoted a total of 1065 audiovisual campaigns. The productions have been adapted into Arabic, Russian, English, French and German. These productions, and this is an interesting detail, have shown the assassination of 1200 people, and 50% of those killings were based on real films and video games. Specifically, those aimed at people aged between 25 and 30: from Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto to the Saw, Matrix or V for Vendetta sagas. There is another important detail. In a total of 1065 audiovisual campaigns, only the 15% of them showed murders. And only 2% of them spoke about religion. The outcome of this marketing plan designed by true professionals is overwhelming. In only 23 months, Daesh has increased its ranks of foreign terrorists by 70%.

The aim of terrorism is to win the battle of public, national or global opinion, using strategic communication and political marketing tools. In other words, wining “the minds and hearts” of hundreds of thousands. This battle, framed within the public opinion, is fought with techniques taken from political marketing and strategic communication. Nowadays, the challenge is to stand up to these sophisticated communication strategies aimed at transforming terrorism into an imitable and popular cultural product.

At this point, two questions arise with two different focuses. The first question is: how can we create an effective counter-narrative? And the second: how can we build an effective narrative? The answer is not the creation of a narrative that counteracts the messages sent from a world of violent radicalisation.

The key is to create a narrative that must be counteracted by the terrorists and their world. And this approach has been proposed based on the theory of public communication, from the strategies that have managed to create and settle public truths.

Interpretation frameworks have a vital role when it comes to the legitimation of the activities of terrorist affiliations and even the attainment of useful support to exercise pressure on a certain political actor. For example, ETA is an organisation that has managed to fascinate thousands of young Basques, has established the ethos of the youth and Basque society.

How we explain reality is crucial, because the person who manages to mark the interpretation on terrorism will mark the limits of the public debate on this reality. For all this, the interpretation frameworks play an important role, the tools that the social or political actors use to frame a reality in a measured way to highlight certain aspects over others. The aim is to impose a framework that differs from the one proposed by the political opponent. The final pretention is the establishment of a public truth that is assumed as socially certain.

Who can activate interpretation frameworks successfully? According to the cascading activation model, there are four actors that follow an equivalent order to the capacity they have of offering frames that dominate the interpretation of different realities: the Government or public Administration, other élites, the media and the public. There is another actor that should be added to these four: alternative networks or social networks, which are steadily becoming a vital part of the construction mechanisms of social and political reality.

It is of utmost importance that these actors are fully aware of their importance and responsibility when creating a solid narrative based on values and within the inviolable interpretation frameworks for those who try to justify illicit violence.

In order to carry out this task, a narrative that wants to act as a barrier against radicalisation should be based on, at least and in our opinion, four pillars: the living testimony of terrorism victims, the real and close figure of members of security and defence authorities, the role of independent entities able to generate an account locally and, last, the cultural audiovisual language.

Nowadays, the world of extremism does not want to promote unique impacts to its public, rather, it wants loyalty and to foment feedback so that, later, it can propose once and again its interpretation frameworks where fanatic approaches are completely valid. In their public communication strategy, one of the objectives is the creation of propaganda that highlights the contradictions in public security and defence policies of Governments. Another aim is to undermine the credibility of State agents, presenting the lawful violence of police or defence officers at the same level as that exercised by terrorist groups.

At this point, the local entities working in the field, like the NGOs or victims of terrorism associations, should be taken into account as bodies capable of creating a solid public truth, with enough public credibility to fight against the attacks of radical propaganda. The living testimony of victims of terrorism is not only a mirror that terrorism does not want to look in. It is also the sound that drives new generations away from the unreality of terrorist propaganda and brings them back to reality, to responsibility. Nonetheless, it is extremely difficult to find testimonies on social networks of families of Daesh victims.

Terrorist organisations like ETA o Daesh try to blur their violent actions in a sea of violence, putting the terrorist culture at the same level as a culture based on democracy and freedom. Today, terrorist entities like Daesh are more social and cultural than religious. That is why, through communication and marketing tools, we should generate identification between citizens and a cultural identity based in freedom. This is relevant because if someone who puts political or religious projects before the right to live ends up being seen as a committed citizen, what moral barrier stops new generations from following a bad example?

This is where the need of creating mental associations that foment our target public to identify themselves with those who protect them against violence appears. Only by putting name and face to those who defend us will we manage to establish, first of all, empathy. After, it is of utmost importance to make the public loyal in order to transform security and defence into a popular and imitable cultural product.

All this is important. But we will never reach potential radicalisable publics if we do not concentrate the strategic approaches in the audiovisual cultural language of the youngest viewers. The language is no longer English, German or Arab. The language, nowadays, is universal, the language used by the new generations is the audiovisual.

We could talk about creating contents in which the victims of fanatic violence talk about their agony. We could also suggest that those contents are sensitive of being spread by journalism by virtue of the strength of those testimonies and a cared editing. However, this sort of initiative is outdated with the arrival of terrorist groups with the expertise use of strategic communication. Groups that not only are able of exploiting media terrorism to its maximum, but that have managed to create solid feedback from its public, turning a terrorist attack into a true communication campaign.

Security and defence officers cannot perform tasks that belong to marketing, publicity or strategic communication experts. In the same way Governments should delegate prevention tasks and widen the work carried out by entities working in the field, security and defence institutions should open their doors to experts in public and strategic communication. The battle against terrorist narratives takes place in the public opinion, and that public opinion is concentrated in our youths’ smartphones.

We are still in time, but we must get on the ball.