A NewPolCom research team will present a paper at a workshop later this month in Sweden, Managing Societal Threats in the Digital Age: The Case of Propaganda and Violent Extremism. The workshop is hosted by the Department for Strategic Communication at Lund University on 28-29 October 2016. Organised by Lund's James Pamment and Corneliu Bjola of Oxford University, the workshop involves speakers from NATO and the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy as well as academics. The NewPolCom team will question the current approach to narrative battles and argue that any efforts at persuasion should be based on a different set of assumptions.
The battle for the battle of the narratives: Sidestepping the double fetish of digital and CVE
Akil Awan, Alister Miskimmon and Ben O’Loughlin
CVE is hot; digital CVE is hotter still. As the US replaces the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications with another new CVE hub, the Global Engagement Center, other Western governments follow suit in building teams charged with countering the narratives thought to radicalise individuals and groups into violence. Officials seek to “contest the space” and, while most evidence points to the role of offline social dynamics in leading individuals to violence, the space is often taken as digital. To fetishise is to imbue an object with special, even magical qualities, ignoring its banal reality. The banal reality is that all media are new media once, whether cave paintings or digital. The banal reality is that CVE was COIN a decade ago and previous acronyms in the decades before that. This double-fetish comes at a cost: the “battle of the narratives” becomes conceptualised and practiced as the quantitative online dominance of “our” content over “theirs”. Rather than admitting how intractably difficult persuasion is, and rather than responding to the real-world concerns of those persuadable by radical narratives – political disenfranchisement, socio-economic depravation, personal identity crises, and xenophobia – the mass takedown of pro-IS accounts on Twitter in 2015 is instead considered a mark of progress. NATO explores simply stopping information from Russia reaching Baltic states in the name of “Stratcom defence” rather than exploring why Russia might be attractive and its narrative persuasive. The enemy is extremism and extremism must be stopped.
This paper makes three moves against this framing. First, we argue this is a radically unrealistic account of communication and persuasion that ignores decades of research on radicalisation and a century of research on media effects. It is radical because it is almost wilfully counterproductive. Second, we ask what move is being made by this act of double fetishization. We find the bureaucratic, target-driven goals of governments can explain this grasping for a tangible, quantifiable mark of progress and the amnesia towards prior COIN and other campaigns. Third, we propose a model of narrative contestation through which governments can address real-world concerns. Our strategic narrative framework that identifies alignment across narratives of the international system, narratives of identity, and narratives of specific problems, can help explain why a certain problem-definition or even worldview becomes meaningful to those open to radicalisation and violence.