Who Doesn’t Like a Good Story? Why Narratives Are Essential in Counter-extremism Efforts

Stack of books
Image credit: Susivinh, is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

“The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor. Everyone loves a good story; every culture bathes its children in stories.”, writes renowned psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his seminal book The Righteous Mind. Stories and narratives are everywhere in our daily lives. From childhood onwards, we are exposed to narratives in books, TV shows, movies, audio books, video games and other forms of entertainment media. In fact, it has been argued that storytelling is the defining feature of being human. German biologist Werner Siefer describes storytelling as a human instinct. Rather than being defined by our sapiens, our intelligence, Siefer argues that we are homo narrans, defined by our storytelling ability.

Given that stories are such a fundamental component of human existence, it is unsurprising that the importance of narratives also permeates research on extremism and radicalization. While the precise role of cognitive structures and beliefs in facilitating violence – the relationship between cognitive and behavioral radicalization – continues to be contested, the stark increase in research pertaining extremists’ use of narratives to facilitate radicalization indicates a growing recognition of the importance of storytelling in extremist contexts. From the structure of narratives and how they are supported by visual forms of storytelling to different modes of delivery used to convey stories such as video games or memes, the research community has dived deep into storytelling by extremist actors and the potential implications for radicalization processes.

The logical next step after recognizing the importance of narratives in extremist communication practices is asking whether and how narratives may also be conducive to preventing and/or countering violent extremism (P/CVE). With a turn towards countering ‘homegrown’ extremism in Europe came a turn towards counter-messaging, counter-narratives, and alternative narratives. Counter-messaging may be defined as direct counter-speech, such as replying to a hateful comment and addressing the user directly. Counter-narratives are broader than counter-messaging and are used to delegitimize and deconstruct extremist narratives such as “The West is at war with Islam” or, in the case of right-wing extremism, the “Great Replacement” narrative. Alternative narratives, finally, are narratives that are supposed to show “what we are for, not what we are against”; that is, presenting a positive perception of reality and communicating messages of inclusion, tolerance, and peaceful conflict resolution.

While a range of guidelines and models for effective alternative and counter-narratives have been produced, there is still much controversy surrounding both the effectiveness of the approach generally and the effectiveness of the actual narratives produced by both governments and NGOs. Critiques include that the government and government-financed NGOs may not be credible messengers, that counter-narratives could lead to a backlash effect and increase anger in target audiences, that alternative narratives paint rosy pictures of multicultural societies which do not correspond to reality and therefore have little effect, and that narratives may not even be effective at all in the counter-extremism toolbox, i.e. much money is spend on something that does not actually work.

This last point of criticism must be challenged. To be sure, a critical reflection on alternative and counter-narratives is not only advisable but necessary to ensure progress in both development and implementation of such narrative campaigns. However, the assumption that narratives may not have an effect on viewers or readers must be questioned based on the findings of narrative persuasion research.

Firstly, “you are what you consume” holds true not only for the food we put in our bodies, but the stories we put in our heads. Over the course of our lives, we build a mental story-bank of narratives we encountered. The story-bank is filled even if we do not intend to remember the narrative or if we do not remember the details of such narratives. When we encounter a new, but related narrative – for instance with a similar theme or build on a similar religious narrative – we process the narrative more efficiently and remember it better than completely unrelated stories. This means that alternative and counter-narratives that build on familiar stories, plots or characters will always have an effect on the viewer, even if the viewer is not aware of such an effect.

Secondly, narratives have been shown to carry persuasive power in non-P/CVE contexts. Narratives have been employed, for instance, in entertainment-education contexts with the goal of changing either beliefs or behaviors of target audiences. As the name suggests, entertainment-education uses engaging and entertaining media content to educate audiences on specific issues, for instance to improve their health. While P/CVE is certainly a more delicate political context than health interventions, the success of entertainment-education points to the persuasive power of narrative measures to change beliefs and behaviors; a prospect certainly relevant for counter-extremism.

Thirdly, even fictional narratives influence real-world beliefs, attitudes, and potentially behaviors, even if they are not intended to do so. For instance, it has been shown that reading Harry Potter reduces prejudice, despite the fact that Harry Potter has been written as entertainment fiction and (probably) not with the intention of influencing attitudes. Narratives can have persuasive effects without being specifically meant to persuade, because stories lower the threshold of perspective-taking in audiences, make it easier to empathize with characters different from oneself. They may also reduce counter-arguing, specifically because narratives are perceived to lack persuasive intent and audiences may not think it is necessary to counter-argue messages presented in narratives as it is ‘just a story’. Therefore, P/CVE may benefit not only from narratives as such but from an exploration of the possibilities that fictional narratives yield for counter-extremism.

Despite around a decade of experience with both alternative and counter-narratives, it seems that there is still much to learn for P/CVE from storytelling in other contexts. As narratives are essential for any form of human communication, they likely yield great potential for counter-extremism if (and only if) they adhere to the principles of good storytelling and are designed as engaging, entertaining and emotionally appealing stories audiences enjoy. Therefore, greater engagement and a dive into the literature on good storytelling and narrative persuasion techniques is advisable for those working in P/CVE.