Jonathan Russell is an expert in preventing and countering violent extremism through strategic communications, most recently as co-chair of the Communications & Narratives working group at the EU’s Radicalisation Awareness Network, and a Senior Account Director at London-based communications agency Zinc Network, where he was responsible for all CVE programmes and partnerships. Previously he was a senior strategist at Breakthrough Media, working on the UK Home Office’s CVE work under Prevent, and had various roles over five years at Quilliam, the world’s first counter-extremism think tank. This article contains only his views, and not of his current or previous employers or clients.
Communication is a core strength of violent extremists. Whether through taking credit for terrorist attacks in the West in order to intimidate populations and provoke governments into hasty responses, by creating propaganda videos to showcase life under their controlled territory, or by engaging with vulnerable audiences on social media platforms to radicalise and recruit them to their ideology and organisation, the most effective violent extremists are the most effective communicators.
European governments, private companies, and civil societies have belatedly appreciated this and have been on a crash course on understanding violent extremist communications in general and use of the Internet in particular over the last 7-10 years. More recently, over the last 5-7 years, the same stakeholders have begun to consider how strategic communications can be used alongside counter-terrorism legislation and broader preventative policy, within a public health framework, to counter radicalisation and reduce the effectiveness of dangerous organisations and individuals.
Preventing violent extremism is, everyone acknowledges, incredibly difficult. Practitioners (whether government, private sector, or civil society) have to make a series of assumptions about who is vulnerable to radicalisation; and then have to prioritise, based on an enormous body of academic and operational literature (of variable quality), what are the likely drivers of radicalisation for this particular audience. This imperfect science must then be balanced against foreseeable risks that come about through proactive interventions, such as the risk of stigmatisation.
One advantage of using strategic communications tools to prevent violent extremism is that it is “softer” and carries fewer risks to the audience - we are all exposed to so much communications that the realistic worst case scenario is that it fails to have an impact; another advantage is that it is relatively cheap to implement, meaning that you can fail faster and cheaper than through taking other approaches; a third advantage is that you can measure and evaluate performance, outcomes, and impact much quicker, meaning that you can adapt or iterate your intervention “on the job” or, at worst, in time for the next intervention and we can all become learning practitioners. This means we can reduce the assumptions made in targeting a vulnerable audience (because if we imperfectly reach the wrong audience alongside the right audience, it probably does not matter), and we can therefore focus a lot more on prioritising the specific driver of radicalisation that we would like to effect through strategic communications, thereby reducing the variables, and tightening a theory of change for our intervention.
This basis has led to the proliferation of strategic communications campaigns across the EU to try and intervene with a wide range of audiences, on multifarious drivers of radicalisation, in order to achieve a P/CVE effect. As this field has evolved, and we have collectively learned more from neighbouring fields of expertise such as behavioural science, a distinction has emerged between counter-narratives, where violent extremist ideas are refuted and challenged head on, and alternative-narratives, where a positive case for an alternative worldview is put forward. It is generally thought that the latter is more adept at being sensitive to the acute vulnerabilities of a target audience, be they a lack of belonging, self-esteem, or support network, or a sense of grievance; but there is also evidence that inoculating audiences against violent extremism, by reducing their trust in extremist brands, leaders, or influencers, and raising their awareness of attempts to manipulate them, can also be effective. These practices continue to evolve, as does the quality of the created content, the digital targeting approaches, the synergies with offline work, and the evaluation methodologies. To this end, strategic communications approaches in P/CVE have probably adapted and improved more in the last 5-7 years than any other aspect of P/CVE.
In Bulgaria, it seems to me that the language of far right extremism has become normalised in political discourse over the last few years. Moreover, it is clear from data that most extremism related criminal offences have been committed by 18-24 year olds, a group that is most likely to be active online, and susceptible to extremist communications.
To counter this, Bulgaria has a comprehensive P/CVE strategy, though is perhaps lacking in overall political commitment to the policy area. Bulgaria has a flourishing civil society, but limited experience in developing counter- or alternative-narratives. Whereas in some countries, such as the UK, government financial and strategic support for civil society organisations (CSOs) helps them to develop independent and effective communications interventions, in Bulgaria, CSOs may rely on European Union funding from the Civil Society Empowerment Programme, draw philanthropic donations from foundations, or seek to crowdfund their own initiatives. Either way, civil society must lead with these initiatives; and must coordinate amongst themselves to share academic insights and lessons learned from recent interventions, and align on strategic priorities to ensure they are greater than a sum of their individual parts.
For this reason, I am particularly excited about the Find Another Way campaign launched by the Centre for the Study of Democracy in partnership with Intelday Solutions and the Safer Internet Center. They have done well to find strategic clarity amid the overwhelming body of literature and data on the causes of polarisation and far right radicalisation in Bulgaria. They have focused in on some tight communications objectives, and are pursuing a noble alternative narrative approach with particularly vulnerable target audiences, having conducted a robust research phase to understand and prioritise their vulnerabilities. Their approach of working with influencers and through schools is an inspired way of reaching this target audience effectively and they are set up for success.
Find Another Way’s core challenge now will be to make a dent in the Bulgarian information environment which seems dominated by populism, mis- and dis-information, and deep polarisation. They have set themselves a huge challenge to try and change the direction of travel for their target audience, both to reduce the appeal of these polarising narratives, and to prevent the escalation to violence among the acutely vulnerable. But the bigger picture is also important: a professionally run campaign that is sensibly monitored and evaluated will be a first for Bulgaria. If the Centre for the Study of Democracy can popularise strategic communications approaches to P/CVE among Bulgarian civil society, and share their lessons learned with their peers, they can collectively turn the tide in Bulgaria, and in time encourage the government, and indeed international donors, to invest in this important joint task. For me, that would be the real measure of success.