Review of Programs to Counter Narratives of Violent Extremism

Project Title

Review of Programs to Counter Narratives of Violent Extremism: What Works and What are the Implications for Government?

Lead / Author

Institute for Strategic Dialogue

Relevant Dates

Report published December 2013.


This report is an effort to assess the state of knowledge about ‘counter-narrative’ efforts that aim to challenge the use of the Internet and social media by violent extremist groups. The review considers the use of online content to engage, proselytize, recruit and inspire acts of violence by movements ranging from Al-Qaeda and affiliated networks, to white supremacist communities. Emphasizing that government-led counter-narrative efforts were still quite new at the time of the review, the authors focus on examples primarily from the US and the UK, and provide lessons learned from both government and civil society efforts.

The review is organized around the three main categories of a ‘counter-messaging spectrum’. The first is Government Strategic Communications, which are actions to get the message out about what government is doing, as well as to support the building of relationships with key constituencies. The second, Alternative Narratives, involves actions that aim to undercut extremist narratives by focusing on what one stands ‘for’ rather than ‘against,’ such as principles of openness, freedom and democracy. The third category comprises Counter-Narratives, which are actions to directly challenge the content of extremist messaging, and include showing inconsistencies and contradictions of ideology or fact, or discrediting through ridicule. The authors note that there can be overlap between the three types of activities, and that there will be challenges for delivering messages to indented audiences.

Select Findings

Based on the cases reviewed, the authors find Strategic Communications to be the area where government has the most natural and effective role to play. This includes the function of raising public awareness and understanding of threats, and explaining government responses to them. Undermining myths and conspiracy theories related to government counter-terrorism activities is also presented as an area in which government should focus its attention.

For Alternative Narratives, the role advocated for government is, in part, one of supporting and facilitating community-led efforts. The authors argue that this role can effectively include providing support for capacity building such as the ‘Muslim Youth Canada’ or MY CANADA initiative led by the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, funded by the Government of Canada’s Multiculturalism Program. Government is also portrayed as having an important role to play in delivering alternative narratives via politicians and public statements. 

With respect to Counter-Narratives, the authors advise caution and generally recommend that governments steer clear from direct involvement, especially given how the identity and credibility of the counter-narrative messenger is considered critical for getting through to key audiences. Former members of violent extremist movements who have ‘been there and done that’ are presented as among those who can credibly deliver messengers for counter-narratives. Other credible messengers identified include survivors of past terrorist attacks, given their first-hand position to de-glamourize and de-legitimize such acts.

Good practices are identified throughout the report, such as examples of specialist government units that bring non-traditional skill sets valuable for analysis and use of Internet and social media-based campaigns. As well, the authors note a key role for government in helping empower the next generation of leaders, such as how MY CANADA worked to develop leadership and communication skills including online. Another example given is how several international initiatives involve partnerships with technology companies to develop online campaign capabilities for civil society groups.

At the same time the authors note challenges for such efforts, including the difficulty for governments in appealing to the emotional instincts of target audiences, and distrust of even arm’s length state-backed efforts. As well, the review notes the ‘enthusiasm gap’ between single-minded extremists and the civil society activists who are working to promote alternative narratives in addition to their myriad of family, professional and community commitments. The report also highlights risks, such as governments unintentionally reinforcing the messages of extremist groups, as with a ‘say-do’ gap, where proclaimed principles and policies do not match with the experiences of target audiences. 

Overall, the authors advocate for the importance of understanding how all three forms of counter-narrative activity can be coordinated to mutually reinforce one another. But they also acknowledge the need and call for more research to evaluate what works, and to better define key audiences and how to reach them.

Further Information

Review of Programs to Counter Narratives of Violent Extremism: What Works and What are the Implications for Government?

Related Initiatives

Benjamin Ducol et al.,“ Assessment of the state of knowledge: between research on social psychology of the Internet and violent extremism,” TSAS, 2016.

Susan Benesch and Derek Ruths, “Considerations for Successful Counterspeech,” 2016.

The SecDev Foundation, “Extreme Dialogue: Social Media Target Audience Analysis and Impact Assessments in Support of Countering Violent Extremism,” 2016.



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