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As travel, study and work are curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic and state responses to it, audiences are spending more time at home and online. Violent extremist groups have been adapting to the new environment, and taking advantage of the situation. Groups such as the Islamic State, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and far-right extremists are increasingly engaging online to radicalise, recruit and fundraise. The impact of the pandemic has exacerbated many key radicalisation factors including: a lack of opportunity and employment, increasing distrust in the government and increased social isolation.
Recently, over 120 preventing violent extremism (PVE) civil society organisations (CSOs), governments and donor representatives from Bangladesh, Kenya, Kosovo, Mali, Nigeria, the Philippines and Tunisia attended a series of global virtual discussions on PVE communication during the pandemic, facilitated by a public–private partnership by M&C Saatchi World Services and the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF).
Between them, the participants identified seven ways to help online and offline PVE messaging remain focused, targeted and efficient during and after the pandemic.
First, messaging needs to direct audiences to trusted and reliable sources. People are anxious and uncertain. We all want to know what is happening, how to protect ourselves and what we can do about it personally. Terrorist organisations are offering answers and spreading false information. Instead, CSOs can respond to peoples’ concerns by directing them to existing programmes, services and official sources can help promote reliable information. For example, in Nigeria, CSOs are tweeting and airing radio messages regularly about existing health and social services.
Second, CSOs should be prepared to create new content when there is a need for it. If there is a lack of reliable information, or disinformation about the pandemic or the services offered to mitigate its consequences, creating new online and offline communications can help to set the record straight. In Kenya, civil society partners created leaflets and videos about how to prevent and protect people from the virus.
Third, civil society messaging can reach audiences that others cannot. Given the trusted relationship between CSOs and communities – and limited government control in certain areas – CSOs’ messaging efforts can serve as a bridge to official guidance and increase confidence in it. Violent extremist organisations are taking advantage where communities have limited trust in official and government sources. In the Philippines, CSOs started an online radio programme with daily episodes. It became the go-to information programme for coronavirus related questions in Marawi.
Fourth, emotional framing can make rational messages more effective. Terrorist groups use emotions for radicalisation, for example, by conducting hate campaigns, increasing anxieties, and vilifying and stigmatising groups of people. Counter messaging needs to do more than simply state the facts: it should explain why the information is so important, what is at stake, what it means to the individual and their family, and why this is relevant to them. For example, in Nigeria, community members were encouraged to wear face masks to protect themselves and elderly relatives.
Fifth, simply staying present and connected to members of the community is an essential form of support. During lockdowns, people have become increasingly isolated and that can contribute to emotional uncertainty. Sports facilities, social spaces, cafes, restaurants and markets are all closed down. The space for socialisation is taken online and to the air (via radio and TV programmes) to which not everyone has access. Communicating the reassuring ‘presence’ of CSOs through regular and structured messaging is essential.
Sixth, CSOs working on PVE can become ‘myth-busters’ and prevent the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories. We know that hate speech can lead to extremist activity driven by xenophobia, racism, or discrimination. In Bangladesh, CSOs working on PVE are guiding communities to official sources about coronavirus and the services available. They are at the forefront of building resilience against violent extremist ideology against minorities.
Seventh, CSOs can give their audiences hope, reassuring them that there is an end to all this. Violent extremist groups, particularly in the Sahel, exploit people who lost hope and purpose as a consequence of coronavirus. Positive alternatives offered by CSOs can be a way to keep people busy, entertained, and involved in their local community. In Kenya, organisations project protective messages at night on the side of high-rise buildings, keeping people entertained.
Communications, especially during and after the coronavirus pandemic, is key to building communities that are resilient against violent extremism and prevent radicalisation. Yet, so often communications is done poorly as a recent RUSI paper on PVE communications has argued. These tips may be straightforward, but they can still be effective in preventing online radicalisation.
Alex Guittard is a Director at M&C Saatchi World Services and a former US State Department official.
Jared Shurin is Strategy Director at M&C Saatchi World Services.
Lilla Schumicky-Logan is Head of Portfolio Management at GCERF, a global fund dedicated to preventing violent extremism, based in Switzerland.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors', and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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