Recruitment Narratives: Cutting Off the Legs Isn’t Enough
Rather than undermine our own ideals with attempts to control information, we should animate our values by enabling our adversaries, and the audience they influence, to see us as encouraging bravery of thought, honoring dissent, even engaging heretical discourse.
By Ajit Mann, Ph.D.
Attempting to control or repress terrorist recruitment messaging by knocking off propagandists is not going to be a successful counter-recruitment strategy. Nor is counter-messaging good enough. At best, those tactics will provide partial temporary containment and at worst and most pragmatic level, they make the coalition unreliable narrators of enlightenment values.
Narratives express identities, values, motivations, and resulting courses of action. Our actions, and messaging about our actions, should re-enforce our narratives. Attempts to control information don’t do that.
Moreover, “messaging” is only effective if it references a recognized pre-existing narrative. Messages are the legs of the narrative body. Cutting off the legs is only going to slow down a powerful narrative.
But how do we communicate with audiences who are hostile to us and our narrative? What do we do when we are dealing with a population that doesn’t share our values, or our world-view, or our understanding of historical context? The answer is, we don’t “tell” them anything and we do not “deliver” a message. Instead, we should do two things simultaneously: 1) we disrupt extremist cognitive frameworks and 2) we enact our own narratives.
The intended effect should not be to replace one narrative for another, ours for theirs, but to loosen the grip of exclusive interpretations of doctrines and exclusive access to truth or the sacred.
And we will benefit from encouraging local narratives that may not counter extremist narratives directly, but will at least provide alternatives that will be more credible and more resilient than narratives we “deliver.”
This type of narrative strategy understands meaning, not as something that is static and can be conveyed whole and intact, but as something that is constructed in social interaction. The speaker’s intent is evaluated by the audience and meaning happens in that initial interaction and continues indefinitely. Social interaction sometimes solidifies certain meanings and sometimes doesn’t. Sometimes social interaction undermines intended meaning.
The sender’s message is less important than the audience’s interpretation.
On the communications model most of us have been taught, however, effective communication involves securely passing information from sender to receiver uncompromised, unfiltered, and undistorted. This model does not take into account the active role and pre-dispositions of the audience. But this model is not how it works. It never has been. And this erroneous linear model of communication has everything to do with failed counter-recruitment efforts.
Based on the antiquated communication model, the goal of counter-recruitment is to control or “counter” extremist messaging. But the goal should be to encourage the meaning-making audience to re-interpret fundamentalist narrative, to cross cognitive frameworks, and to encourage the audience to actively revise their own narratives.
Narratives that take on a life of their own are nimble and accommodate changes in conditions; they live and breathe among people who decide what events mean, and the most resilient narratives are ones that are locally produced, not sent over from abroad.
Ajit Mann, Ph.D. is CEO of Narrative Strategies, LLC, Faculty at George Mason University, Center for Narrative Conflict Resolution, member of the Brain Trust of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative, author of Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, and co-editor of Soft Power on Hard Problems: Strategic Influence in Irregular Warfare.