Horizon Scanning: The Future of Counterspeech and Positive Interventions

Horizon Scanning: The Future of Counterspeech and Positive Interventions
28 February 2024 GIFCT
In Insight, News

Horizon Scanning: The Future of Counterspeech and Positive Interventions

The following is a staff insight from GIFCT’s Membership and Programs Director, Dr Erin Saltman, capturing key highlights from her co-authored chapter “The Future of Counterspeech: Effective Framing, Targeting, and Evaluation” with Munir Zamir in the book Counterspeech: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Countering Dangerous Speech (Routledge, 2023).

Their chapter outlines international counter-narrative and alternative-narrative case studies online (referred to as counterspeech) to exemplify what works, and why, in developing, deploying, and measuring counterspeech campaigns and online interventions. It critically examines how to frame counterspeech campaigns, targeting and launching campaigns, and measurement and evaluation of campaigns.

This insight was prepared by the author in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of GIFCT.


Definition, foundations, and today’s challenges

The removal of terrorist and violent extremist content online is crucial to counterterrorism efforts. However, content removal will always target a symptom, more than the underlying causes of radicalization. As recognized by the UN Security Council, acts of terrorism and violent extremism cannot be prevented or countered through repressive measures alone, and need to be supplemented with a whole-of-society approach. Counterspeech, also known as counter-narratives or alternative-narratives, has been the primary vehicle for online activists and practitioners to attempt to move vulnerable and at-risk audiences away from violent extremist ideologies and towards positive alternatives.

Counterspeech can be defined as any online initiative, campaign, or engagement meant to promote positive alternatives or counter narratives to counteract the possible interest in terrorist and violent extremist groups (see more framing from GIFCT’s 2021 Positive Intervention Working Group output). Civil society and tech company approaches to counterspeech have evolved substantively in the last ten years with technological advancements making it faster, cheaper, and easier to create innovative and visual messaging. This, combined with a generation of young activists socialized as digital natives, has facilitated a global influx of both hate-based content and creative attempts to counter this material online, in addition to offline efforts. As a result, the use of counterspeech as a positive intervention in preventing and countering terrorism and violent extremism is more prevalent than ever before, often done holistically and without much— if any—funding. However, the practice of counterspeech requires greater guidance and more robust public-private partnerships in order for it to work at scale.

Initiatives to preventing and countering violent extremism (PVE/CVE) over the past decade first focused on responding to the digitally savvy propaganda of ISIS and its international recruitment strategy, and later, to white supremacy terrorist attacks like the 2019 terrorist shootings at Christchurch, New Zealand mosques, which were livestreamed and quickly proliferated across social media platforms. In the aftermath of both periods, waves of government and private funding were channeled to internal and partnered efforts to counter online propaganda and recruitment by violent extremist and terrorist networks. Today, we are faced with a twofold challenge; (1) increasingly domestic extremist threats combined with (2) decreased funding from governments and private sectors towards PVE/CVE efforts. Increased populist politics and domestic extremist groups can be seen evolving in parts of America, Europe, Asia, and Africa with few formal political mechanisms to concretely push back on these groups or movements.

Counterspeech provides multiple benefits with regards to PVE/CVE efforts and can be nimble to align with current and evolving online threats. For example, it can be done effectively with a relatively small budget. And if planned and implemented effectively, it can reach a wide, at-risk audience with messaging that is tailored to local contexts and audiences.

Effectively Framing Counterspeech

“Who are you trying to reach and what actions or responses do you want from that audience?” This is the core question that needs to be at the center of framing a counterspeech campaign. In 2022, GIFCT produced a report highlighting that counterspeech was rooted in active strategic communications. The more practitioners can identify the “target audience” they want to reach online, including the audience’s interests and behaviors, the easier it is to understand how to reach it and what messaging will resonate with them. The message, messenger, and tone must be in alignment with the target audience in order for the counter narrative to be compelling.

There is no one-size-fits all approach to counterspeech since online and offline socio-political dynamics are always in flux. Consequently, each approach should be tailored to specific contexts and objectives. Technological innovation, lifestyle changes, and current events should all be considered when developing a counterspeech initiative. Counterspeech should also effectively identify an issue, audience, and intended effect, and be ready to address scrutiny. This means being able to critically engage with audiences who may have an adversarial reaction to content or seek a more granular level of engagement. The tone of an online campaign or counterspeech content also matters; research shows that humor can be a helpful vehicle to create a cognitive opening with harder-to-reach or vulnerable audiences. A final but crucial consideration to include is that online content benefits from brevity; short, direct, targeted and compelling content goes the furthest.

Selecting the Medium

Most online counterspeech tactics are launched on a small number of large platforms, such as X, Facebook, Youtube, and Instagram. However, a brief glance at the range of apps in use on the average phone is a stark reminder that communication and engagement is increasingly cross-platform, interactive, and interconnected. From gaming-adjacent chat sites to more personalized chat forums, to video streaming sites, newer online spaces deserve more attention from counterspeech practitioners. An effective counterspeech campaign should be launched on the platform(s) the target audience is using. In any case, but especially if engagement is sought on more fringe platforms or online spaces that are harder to reach, safety protocols, escalation pathways, and practitioner safety should be carefully considered ahead of time.

Online Campaigns Towards Engagement

The future success of counterspeech work depends on its ability to ‘activate’ audiences through clear value propositions, sentiment alignment that drives action, and incentivisation of audiences to be part of positive social change. A positive counterspeech intervention should make the audience understand what is being asked of it and, ideally, engage and interact with the call to action. Counterspeech content being passively consumed can then have the ability to turn into an active conversation if the right ingredients are included. Campaigners and activists should be ready to engage with comments and outreach to guide the next steps of the target audience.

Evaluating Impact

Those developing and implementing counterspeech should also learn from other fields, including marketing, public information campaigns, developmend, and education, which can also inform efforts to measure their impact. To date, the vast majority of counterspeech has been launched in one of three ways: (1) through organic networks, (2) via targeted ads, or (3) through search redirection. All three methods have progressed in the last ten years, calling for similar progress and evolution in terms of evaluation efforts. Previous counterspeech campaigns have largely been assessed on reach and engagement metrics, often overlooking behavioral or sentiment change analysis. This is often hard to build into an evaluation framework but is crucial in answering whether counterspeech has been a success.

Multistakeholder Efforts

Studies of counterspeech tactics continue to show that multistakeholder approaches are particularly effective, and that civil society voices are among the most credible. It is, however, important that those supporting these initiatives—whether governments or the private sector—manage their support while ensuring they do not compromise the credibility of the messenger. Such campaigns can work particularly well when tech platforms work with CSOs to ensure they have the tools and tactics necessary to deploy counterspeech effectively on a given platform, as each platform has its own unique style. Cross-sector dialogue to review and evolve practices to the current threat landscape and better anticipate future risks remains crucial to continue the counterspeech evolution, remembering that we often learn more from each other’s failures than our successes.

The game of cat and mouse between PVE/CVE focused actors and violent extremist groups will continue to evolve. Diversified threats mean refreshed tactics and innovation are needed to guide PVE/CVE work and counterspeech will remain a critical component of any well-rounded approach.

For a wider analysis and discourse on all things counterspeech, please check out Counterspeech: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Countering Dangerous Speech.