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Symbols representing communication. Courtesy of Robert Kneschke / Adobe Stock.

Through the Looking Glass: Assessing the Evidence Base for P/CVE Communications

Michael Jones
Occasional Papers, 17 July 2020
Terrorism and Conflict, UK Integrated Review 2021, Tackling Extremism, Terrorism
This paper assesses the effectiveness of P/CVE communications, and highlights what can work (and what does not).

Recognising that terrorism ‘is not simply violence but communication’, P/CVE communications have become a prominent, if not staple, strand of preventive policy and programming. Designed to discredit, counter or confront extremist messaging, or strengthen the digital literacy and critical thinking capabilities of recipient societies, these measures include a diverse spectrum of interventions, both on- and offline. 

Despite their ubiquity, this paper reveals significant shortfalls in the evidence base and emphasises the limitations and ambiguities of many communication-based activities. A paucity of empirical data on effectiveness, fragmented or outdated theoretical foundations and assumption-based logics constrain projects, particularly counternarratives, which attract disproportionate attention in the literature. These limitations are frequently accentuated by the insularity of messaging exercises, a preoccupation with ‘message dominance’ and a neglect for factors that make extremist content appealing in the first place. Crucially, the wider ecology framing how people consume and interpret content, and the dynamics of radicalisation and recruitment processes themselves, are often overlooked. 

This review of the literature suggests there is anecdotal evidence that interventions are stronger when they recognise and respond to the social and relational dynamics of these processes. The use of credible messengers when engaged in dialogue and integrative approaches that leverage communications strategically to supplement messaging with wider activities appear promising. Programmes prioritising process and providing opportunities for narrative therapy, social change and individual empowerment are also encouraging as they strengthen inclusion and the agency of beneficiaries. However, these approaches continue to be underdeveloped in the literature and there is little analysis or experimentation into methods for expanding the scale and scope of such labour-intensive, highly tailored activities. Until these gaps are addressed, potentially effective interventions will struggle to create and sustain traction offline, or out-compete the ‘swarmcast’ online.

The paper first briefly outlines the methodology and definitions used in this research. It then summarises the extent and limitations of the available evidence base before analysing the shortcomings and constraints of communication-based interventions, and identifying approaches that potentially show more promise. The final chapter summarises key conclusions and their associated recommendations.

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Robert Kneschke / Adobe Stock.

Michael Jones
Research Fellow

Michael is a Research Fellow in the Terrorism and Conflict team examining political violence, conflict economies and the convergence of... read more

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