“We think in narratives. Everyone is looking to see if their story is being told.”
Misinformation, chaos and mistrust
Today, after 18 months of the US President’s whopping lies and eye-popping tweets, the misinformation train-wreck that is Brexit, Russian interference in western elections, and the fake-news-fuelled populist insurgencies across Europe, it seems ironic that there could still be objections to democratic governments' using “grey” (i.e.: unattributed) campaigns to counter terrorist recruitment and prevent violent extremism. Nevertheless, the issue goes to the heart of trust in democratic governments.
Everyone is agreed that something needs to be done to prevent extremists and terrorists exploiting the on-line space. In most cases, expert advice has been reliably poor. There is, for example, no evidence that openly confronting extremist propaganda with counter-narratives is effective – and some evidence that they have actually done more harm than good. Some of the recent attempts at counter narratives within the EU have been embarrassingly bad. In any event, counter-radicalisation is not about "better" facts or winning an argument: more often than not we're simply talking to ourselves.
Grey campaigns, on the other hand, don't waste time arguing against entrenched ideological positions. They use openness and balanced - non-binary - thinking techniques or anger management to deepen resilience against extreme beliefs. They use the meta-mechanism that it's people who grip ideologies -- not ideologies that grip people. This explains how and why extremist ideologies and beliefs are adopted because they are psychologically attractive, convenient, meaningful or useful rationalisations. Like all psychologically needy beliefs they are often secretly doubted and defended more aggressively - making the counter narrative pointless. The purpose of grey campaigns is to use psychology and emotions tailored to quite specific states of mind - rather than facts and argument - in order to provide a more pragmatic and less ideological outcome. They are also demonstrably effective.
The tricky path of censorship
Suspecting that the counter narrative is a waste of time, many EU governments have now turned their focus towards blocking and censoring extremist propaganda. The problem is that they’ve been unable to find a legally robust definition of “extremism” that can hold up against a free-speech challenge in the courts…. so they’ve chosen the much less democratic (some say “intellectually lazy”) route of challenging and empowering Internet and social media corporations to become society’s censors – and de facto guardians -- of free speech, its expression and privacy protection.
Too much power for social media and Internet companies
It’s a mistake for governments to trust these already obscenely powerful corporations. Not only are they unelected, non-transparent and unaccountable to anyone… they’re self-serving, for-profit and unreliable. Put simply, they do not exist to serve the public interest. US Congressmen have accused Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO of lying to Congress and he point-blank refused a request to appear before a much tougher UK parliamentary inquiry - perfectly encapsulating the problem for citizen’s rights: zero transparency, zero accountability….. and zero respect.
Social media corporations are also confused about how to define extremism and, since they refuse to disclose the systems and algorithms used to censor individuals and organisations, they are effectively a law onto themselves. Only two percent of all accounts they block or censor happen as a result of government demands. Meanwhile, all kinds of inoffensive accounts have been removed without recourse to appeal. They also don’t appear to know what, and whose, private information they sell to whom and for the most part are in deep denial about the responsibility they carry for weaponizing false information, weaponizing politics and weaponizing civic discourse.
On-line security experts predict that requests to block extremists from using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (and Google is just as bad) will simply drive extremists faster and further up the learning curve – either into smaller and less well-known platforms (there’s plenty of competition) or into the dark-web where they will be almost impossible to monitor. In any event, there is scant evidence that social media sites are used to plan terrorist attacks. The question is, what benefit will citizens get in exchange for this government and social media focus on censorship?
So, back to Grey campaigns. Let’s consider what they mean for democracy, the public interest and trust in government. Grey campaigns are unattributed for one reason only - to maximize acceptance by the target audience. They’re based on the axiom that, “The messenger is as important as the message,” and rather than trying to change beliefs they focus on resilience and how - not what - to think. They have no secret content, they’re legal and anyone can do them. There’s nothing sinister or malevolent about them; they’re not black campaigns, they do not use misinformation or seek to persuade using lies or falsehoods -– as far-right propaganda sites do; they do not blacken names or reputations; they do not contain propaganda nor create potentially harmful arguments around religious or political content. Their purpose is to minimize the risk of violent anti-social behaviour.
Governments can ensure grey campaigns have independent judicial oversight of two key criteria to protect the public interest and trust in government, namely, that they can “Do No Harm” (ie: there is no victim) – and are certified free from political or religious content -- or any kind of misinformation. It’s a win-win outcome if no harm is done, there is no victim and they could save lives. And at the end of the day, governments are still fully accountable to the public.
Citizens don’t object to governments acting in the public interest to neutralise the recruitment of violent extremists. Some sort of regulated and transparent censorship can be part of the mix, but it’s a weak strategy and has two huge flaws; the first is that extremists will always find a way around it and, more importantly, censorship doesn't prevent people being attracted to the ideas. In fact, it often has the opposite effect. If the target audience we need to reach is often “under-the-radar” until the moment they become active, shouldn’t we be too?
We would be foolish to trust the motives, judgement or competence of the social media corporations who have become judges and guardians of much that governments used to oversee, protect and take responsibility for. By comparison, so far as trust in government is concerned, grey campaigns are distinctly virtuous and democracies need to re-think the benefits since governments – with state resources in national intelligence and security - are in the best position to organize, target, synchronize and oversee such campaigns for maximum effect and public protection.
Ultimately, preventing violent extremism is about understanding people - not just information – and that’s the point of grey campaigns. Done well, and given the degree of information chaos and mistrust out there, grey campaigns can be helpful in reassuring the public and maintaining trust that government communications countering extremism are in safe hands.
There's no point in trying to reach and influence the people we need to reach by advertising who we are....