Most Preventing/Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE) strategies assign a prominent role to counter or alternative narratives. The thinking behind these strategies goes something like this: groups like the so called Islamic State and Al Qaeda have been dominating the messaging war by reaching out over multiple platforms while culturally and individually tailoring their messages. The argument continues that extremist groups have an intuitive understanding of the grievances and aspirations of their potential recruitment pools. As a result, their messages powerfully tap into the sentiments of their target populations, which allow them to recruit members and supporters in the tens of thousands from dozens of countries worldwide. It is therefore incumbent, the argument goes, upon governments to fund efforts to counter these messages and provide alternative narratives to combat the onslaught of extremist groups’ strategic communications.
However, what most P/CVE strategies fail to demonstrate is that effective messaging is just one part of a holistic influence campaign where offline actions reinforce online messaging. The messages of extremist groups reach their intended audiences, resonate with them, and then – most importantly – offer them a pathway for action. If the movement speaks to you then you can, for instance, help spread their message online or offline, recruit and proselyte others, facilitate terrorist attacks or material flows, provide infrastructural support, or even become a local or foreign fighter. The appeal of the recruitment messaging is that these are action-oriented groups that can be supported or joined. Instead of solely offering online counter-narratives, P/CVE strategists should consider shifting their focus to offering what I call counter-engagement. Instead of offering alternative messages only, these efforts should shift towards offering alternatives things to do as well.