Narratives are believed to play a key part in modern radicalization processes as they provide a ‘competitive system of meaning’ that potential recruits can adhere to and construct an alternative worldview with. Powerful stories of an existential crisis, of a chosen group of heroes defending those who cannot defend themselves, of conspiratorial and evil forces covertly pulling the strings to make the world turn, of traitors, and of a utopian society built after ‘the final battle against darkness’, are not only the fabric of comic books and Hollywood movies, but an integral part of extremists’ storytelling and recruitment tactics. It is, at least partially, the power of a good story that draws individuals into extremism and contributes to their radicalization.
It is, therefore, only logical that P/CVE actors also seek to utilize positive stories about tolerance, openness, freedom and democracy in their efforts to counter extremism and to provide both counter-narratives and alternative narratives that attempt “to challenge extremist and violent extremist messages — whether directly or indirectly — through a range of online and offline means”. For more than a decade, such campaigns have been a key part of P/CVE measures in Europe and take on various shapes in the online world, including videogames, YouTube campaigns, Instagram channels and other digital communication means.
What such narrative campaigns should look like is still being debated. Multiple handbooks and models provide general recommendations including: not to use governments as messengers, to run digital campaigns on the social media platforms most frequently used by the target audience, to produce ‘slick’ and professional content, as well as to tailor campaigns to a more or less narrowly defined target audience. The latter suggests narrowcasting, as opposed to broadcasting efforts, i.e. to define a very specific audience and tailor the content according to their preferences rather than seeking to produce content with the potential to ‘go viral’ and appealing to a large range of individuals. However, for a variety of reasons, this is easier said than done.
Narratives as Mirrors
In the digital sphere, narrowcasting has become easier than in pre-Internet times, as users share personal information about themselves and their preferences online, e.g. putting their hobbies on Facebook, listening to their favorite songs on YouTube or following certain celebrities on Instagram, and algorithms can deduce which content users may like from their online activities. P/CVE actors, however, usually do not have access to such detailed personal information of their target audience and the tailoring is often based on fairly broad categories. In addition, prevention efforts should theoretically apply to a large and diverse group of people, whereas interventions targeting those already radicalized may only be useful in a limited number of cases. Nevertheless, even when more narrow targeting would be possible, and more detailed information available, tailoring narrative campaigns poses immense challenges.
Michael Ende, author of many well-known children’s books, summarized why this is the case: “When two readers read the same book, they actually do not read the same thing. Each brings himself into the reading, his thoughts and associations, his experiences, his imagination, his standards. One could say that the book is a mirror, in which the reader finds himself reflected”. This is both the strength and the weakness of narratives, whether they are told in books, movies or on Instagram. It cannot be predicted how an individual reacts to a story because a seemingly endless number of factors influence narrative reception and engagement with the story.
What Ende knew intuitively from his experience as an author, academic research on narratives has confirmed: personality, preferences, prior experiences, and the immediate situation in which the narrative is received determine individual narrative reception. Personality traits that influence narrative reception include: 1) transportability — how easily a viewer or reader becomes immersed into the story 2) need for affect — how much an individual seeks and enjoys emotional content 3) need for cognition — how much an individual seeks and enjoys cognitively challenging content and 4) sensation-seeking — how appealing an individual perceives narratives with a high message sensation value to be. Preferences may pertain to genre, visual style, more or less realistic storytelling (e.g. fiction), and thematic focus, whereas prior experiences may lead individuals to seek or avoid certain types of stories, e.g. ones that are too far away from their personal beliefs. The immediate situation of the narrative consumption may also influence reception, e.g. distractions, current mood or watching the narrative on a phone versus on a big screen. Additional factors include how much individuals can identify with the protagonist, how likeable the characters are, and the quality of the storytelling.
Because there are so many factors related to narrative reception that P/CVE actors cannot control, perfect tailoring cannot be achieved. Personality factors such as transportability or need for cognition may cut across demographic groups and may differ widely within a certain target audience. They may also interact with preferences of genre and style. For instance, one can easily imagine that while young men are generally believed to be interested in high sensation seeking and therefore find action-laden superhero stories with a high message sensation value to be appealing, there will also be young men of a similar background, demographic and with similar interests, who do not enjoy such narratives. In short, perfect targeting would necessitate individual targeting. It is debatable whether it will ever be possible to determine such a complete personality profile of individual users that narrative reception would be predictable and whether targeting narratives specific to an individual would not pose serious ethical risks, not only in the P/CVE context. Possibly then, a strict focus on better targeting may not be the most useful route to take for P/CVE narrative campaigns.
A Digital Bookstore Approach
To be sure, this article is not arguing against tailoring narrative campaigns to specific target audiences. It is always beneficial to understand to whom one is talking to and which preferences this group may have. However, as we have seen, targeting will never be perfect and narrative reception is highly dependent upon individual traits and preferences, which means that there is probably a large diversity within any given target audiences. Therefore, instead of only looking towards better targeting, I would argue that looking in the opposite direction may be fruitful as well. What if narrative campaigns against extremism would be treated less like a single customized page narrowcasted to a highly specific audience, and more like a bookstore, which is diverse and affords choice and agency to its visitors?
Instead of aiming for ever more narrowly targeted narrative campaigns, P/CVE actors could consider a digital bookstore approach. In a bookstore, there are a variety of genres and styles available: Biographies and fantasy books, critical and thought-provoking literature, feel-good and easy-to-read romantic comedies, historical fiction and non-fiction, grand utopias and highly realistic accounts of the contemporary world, graphic novels and comics, religious texts, and self-help books. In short: In a successful bookstore, there is something for everybody. Some people may know exactly which book they want before entering and they need to be able to find easily whatever it is they desire. Others may roam free between all these worlds, be inspired by what they see and select something on the spot. They exercise a high degree of personal agency, i.e. they can look at everything and then choose what is most appealing to them. Narrow targeting is unnecessary as people self-select what they like.
Potentially, such an approach could circumvent the imperfect targeting of narrative campaigns. Producing a wide variety of P/CVE content that users can easily find and consume at their own choosing and according to their own preferences, could help to bring the ‘right’ (most appealing) content to target audiences. Because individuals target themselves, i.e. they choose their preferred content, the fit between preferences and narrative is likely to be relatively high. In addition, the act of choosing may increase the level of perceived agency in watching such narrative campaigns, which may be beneficial for the reception of such content. Offering a similar narrative in various styles, with various degrees of message sensation value, or various degrees of realism offers audiences choice and, therefore, increases the likelihood that any given individual will find a narrative style he/she finds appealing.
For such a bookstore approach to work, however, there needs to be a variety of campaigns in different styles available. Currently, narrative campaigns are often short-lived. They run a few weeks or months and then the project is ‘finished’. A bookstore, which has only a few books available, and which are only on display for a short period of time, is a pretty lousy bookstore. It would be necessary to plan for longer, more diverse campaigns and for more collaboration between different P/CVE actors producing narrative campaigns with different focus, and in different styles, in order to fill the bookstore with life. If that could be achieved, a digital bookstore approach could help facilitate the self-selection of audiences to narrative campaigns suitable to their specific preferences more effectively than targeting would be able to achieve.
Again, this is not a call to not use narrowcasting or not tailor narrative campaigns against extremism to specific audiences, but it is a call to think about what diversity and variety in storytelling could bring to the table considering how imperfect targeting of narrative campaigns is, as reception is influenced by a multitude of factors that cannot easily be deduced from online profiles. There already is a counter-narrative library, maybe it’s time for a bookstore as well.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
 My translation from Ende, M. (2019). Mehr Phantasie wagen: Ein Manifest für Mutige. Thiele Verlag: München, p.22.