Countering violent extremism through media and communication strategies: A review of the evidence

Kate Ferguson


Current global challenges posed by violent Islamist extremism (VIE) has increased the need for an evidenced-based understanding of how democracies can respond to such threats. This review presents a fragmented research landscape: the potential for mass media to influence communities, societies and individuals is clear yet precisely how this capacity can be employed by democracies and NGOs in pursuit of peace and security remains largely unknown. While there is some suggestion this is changing, the review highlights gaps in knowledge and evidence. Findings challenge the claim that responding to propaganda strategies by firing back with “counter-narratives” are effective. Evidence does suggest that alternative media strategies can help, but the trust and credibility of information providers is crucial. More needs to be done to draw evidence together to learn lessons and to identify and prioritise gaps in our knowledge and understanding.

This review draws on data from informal interviews of academic and non-academic experts and a desk-based literature review. This survey differs from many recent CVE publications because the literature reviewed here has been gathered and assessed using a broader definition of IBV (identity-based violence) and a narrower (and sometimes contested) concept of VE (violent extremism).

This survey found little robust evidence that proves interaction with VE content leads to participation in VE activities. While there is some evidence suggesting patterns of discourse and communication such as hate speech, dehumanisation, and identity-based narratives can contribute to conditions where IBV or VE becomes more likely, the causal relationship remains unproven. The theory that VE propaganda narratives can be replaced with, or dismantled by, an alternative set of communications is an assumption that remains unproven. The rich literature on propaganda, nationalism and identity suggests that the values identified in contemporary VIE propaganda has also been present in virtually every successful identity-based propaganda campaign in history.

Trust and credibility of information providers offering alternative narratives is crucial to the success of their uptake. There are limits to the effectiveness of media and communication agendas if perceived to be associated with particular politics. There is a growing evidence base suggesting that radio and television drama addressing issues of identity, reconciliation, and tolerance has an impact on public attitudes and behaviour. The projects that are most successful do not seek to comprehensively reshape the status quo, but rather aim to facilitate conversation, encourage awareness, or dispel misinformation.

The review illustrates the need for cross-disciplinary engagement and inter-disciplinary research to discourage stigmitisation of Muslims and Muslim communities and promote a more diverse CVE research culture that encompasses research from other disciplines.  This will involve drawing out lessons from other identity-based crises such as Northern Ireland, former Yugoslavia and the Great Lakes, Research rich areas and from discplines such as  identity, media consumption habits, or the capacity for mass media to influence social norms.

While the internet will be an important avenue of communication, education – whether through media and communication strategies or in the classroom – will play an important role in how societies will participate in new media platforms. Researchers may wish to explore why engaging with certain VE narratives online can be so appealing from a communications perspective and, therefore, consider whether there are media or communication based-solutions that can draw on these lessons.

Media assistance should be a core aspect of development work, as well as conflict prevention and peacebuilding, to ensure that at a time of crisis the local and domestic media are in the position to respond appropriately. The growing empirical evidence base regarding the relationship between hate speech, prejudice, and IBV, suggests media producers and communication platforms could do more to integrate codes of conduct or community guidelines informed by the research.


Ferguson, K. (2016). Countering violent extremism through media and communication strategies: A review of the evidence. Cambridge: Partnership for Conflict, Crime and Security Research.