Senior Policy Advisor. European Foundation for Democracy. Co-chair of the European Commission’s Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) Communication and Narratives (C&N) Working Group
The 8th Euromed Survey conducted by the European Institute of the Mediterranean touches upon a number of important and complex issues related to violent extremism in the EuroMediterranean region, including the question of the context and drivers through which violent extremism can prosper. Echoing some of the results, this article looks into propaganda as a tool of extremist ideologies and how to counter it.
What is Propaganda?
Propaganda, as a tool of extremist ideologies, aims to generate and promote a world view that reduces the complexity of life to a simple black and white picture. This structured attempt to reform the cognitive (and emotional) perceptions of a target audience to initiate an action in the interest of the propagandist has probably been a part of every political or religious conflict (Jowett, 2012).
In 1622, when the Catholic Church professionalised its missionary work to counter the progress of the Protestants, the body responsible for this important endeavour was called “Sacra Congregatio de propaganda fide”, which gave the name to what since then has been called propaganda. Over the conflict of what true Christianity is, Catholics regarded propaganda as something positive, while Protestants saw it as a tool of the enemy (Bussmer, 2013).
Propaganda, in the form of recruitment messaging, generally follows the pattern of diagnosis (what is wrong), prognosis (what needs to be done) and rationale (who should do it and why) (Wilson, 1973). The self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS/Daesh), for example, follows the same principle: diagnosis (Islam/Sunni Muslims are under attack), prognosis (fight/create the Caliphate) and rationale (help however you can).
The IS then uses sub-narratives for every target group they want to reach (Neumann, 2015). Adventure-seeking young men were promised a future as heroes who are fighting for a just cause and who would be rewarded, amongst other things, with wives and sex slaves. Medical doctors and engineers were lured in by the call to helping fellow Sunni Muslims in need and to being part of the creation of the perfect Islamic utopian society, the Caliphate. Young women were promised an important role by becoming the wives of the “lions of the Caliphate” and securing its future by raising their “cubs” (Winter, 2015).
How Does Propaganda Work?
Extremist propaganda often has clear-cut messages that promise clarity, relevance and meaning in addition to emotional and social benefits, such as belonging to a new family or brotherhood/sisterhood. For propaganda to increase its chances of success, it needs to be close to an already existing (perceived) truth of the targeted audience. 180-degree conversions happen but very rarely.Weiterlesen »
Alexander Ritzmann addressed the EuroMeSCo Annual Conference in Barcelona on 1-2 June. The conference gathered senior policymakers and researchers to discuss violent extremism in the Euro-Mediterranean region, its manifestations, drivers, impact and how it can be curbed.
On 22nd March 2017, the anniversary of the 2016 Brussels attacks provided an occasion to discuss measures to prevent similar tragedies: the European Policy Centre (EPC), in partnership with the European Foundation for Democracy (EFD) and the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) presented the final publication of The challenges of jihadist radicalisation in Europe and beyond, a research and event project.
Alexander speaks starting minute 33.
Today’s anniversary of the terror attacks in Brussels on 22 March 2016 provides a perfect opportunity to reflect on the challenge posed by jihadist radicalisation and the need for effective prevention policies across Europe, write Alexander Ritzmann and Andrea Frontini.
Decades of research on the root-causes of terrorism have produced inconclusive results. Radicalisation, a dramatic change in thinking and behaviour leading to (violent) extremism, is best described as an individual pathway, with medical doctors and engineers joining terrorist groups, along with petty criminals and poor and uneducated people. Most extremists are young men, although the number and role of women in terrorism has increased in recent years, including among those leaving to Syria and Iraq.
This puts policy makers in Europe under severe pressure. Where should thin public budgets be allocated to tackle this challenge? Should it be in better schools and education, more social workers and integration programmes, further sports and recreational activities for vulnerable youth, or bigger police, intelligence and surveillance?
While all these policy fields are important, priorities must be identified, based on which policies promise the best return for the short and longer-term security of citizens and societies at large.
Propaganda, the art of twisting information to make it fit your interests or ideology, always plays a role. Extremists are often attracted by the clear cut messages that can give simple meaning to an otherwise complex life. Extremist narratives aim to generate a world view where everything is black and white, where one is either in or out of a group. And they promise emotional and social benefits such as belonging to a new family or brotherhood in the fight for a supposedly just cause.
Propaganda is effective when it is close to a perceived truth of the targeted audience. Ideology, whether for white supremacists or Islamists, plays a key role in legitimising the strategies and actions of the extremists which would otherwise simply be criminal acts. In some cases, ideology makes the difference between someone committing suicide or driving a truck into a group of people.
On 29th November, EFD Executive Director and Chairman of RAN Communications and Narratives (C&N) Working Group, Alexander Ritzmann, was among a group of policy experts speaking at the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee’s Pubic Hearing on preventing and countering radicalisation and violent extremism.
Terroristische Propaganda und die Verantwortung der Medien
Die strategischen Ziele und taktischen Maßnahmen terroristischer Organisationen werden von den Medien häufig falsch vermittelt. Journalisten fungieren außerdem als unfreiwillige Helfershelfer der Propagandaabteilungen von al-Qaida oder des Islamischen Staates. Kinder, Jugendliche und psychisch labile Erwachsene, die besonders anfällig für extreme Einflüsse sind, können durch diese Art der Berichterstattung zur Nachahmung von Attentaten und Amokläufen inspiriert werden.
In this article, EFD´s Executive Director Alexander Ritzmann highlights that media outlets often involuntarily serve as extended propaganda channels of terrorist organizations. In the current issue of “tv diskurs”, the magazine of the organization for the self-regulation of television in Germany (FSF), Alexander argues that many media outlets don´t put terrorist propaganda and attacks in context and therefore spread fear and confusion. Research on the effects of unreflected media reporting on suicides and mass shootings indicates that especially minors and adults with specific mental illnesses can be inspired to imitate extreme behavior if the individuals are in a personal crisis at the time of the reporting. In extreme cases, this can motivate individuals who are considering suicide to committing mass murder because of the attention and “fame” affiliated with these crimes. Alexander calls for journalists and media companies to explain terrorist tactics and strategies better to their audiences to foster the resilience of individuals and societies.