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  • Elliot Grainger

Future Trends 2019: Addressing Extremism in the European Communications Ecosystem

This paper reframes the ‘extremist challenge’ as a communications one, focusing on the societal and technological changes and dynamics that affect the ability of terrorists and extremists to operate. Strategic communications efforts should be focusing on audiences’ vulnerabilities, rather than on specific ideologies. While ideology does constitute a fundamental component of the radicalisation journey, strategic communications can help in addressing the grievances leading to an individual becoming open to these ideologies in the first place - whatever the ideology they use to justify and frame that worldview.

This paper is not to be considered as academic research. Instead, it is based on the our work, engagement and experience - our ‘qualitative intuition’ - refined through continuous consultation with EU governments, the production of analyses, external research and media monitoring, as well as an ad-hoc engagement with a selected panel of academic experts.

Understanding the communications ecosystem

Whilst we traditionally think of communications as a linear process with a sender, a recipient and a message, today’s reality is that such basic structures do not hold anymore. For instance, channels are no longer mere ‘media’ whereby the message is transmitted. The choice of the channel is an integral part of communications content, shaping its format and how it will be received and understood. Channels of communications are nowadays audiences and messages themselves. Likewise, audiences are not mere passive recipients. By interacting with and reacting to the content they consume, they can at times be more influential on how others receive and understand the content than the sender – depending on their influence on a given platform.

Communications needs therefore to be understood as intervening in an ‘ecosystem’ of networks that interact with one another. As in biology an ecosystem is the interaction of entities in a given environment that shapes and identifies the space itself. For the purpose of this paper ‘communications ecosystem’ is defined as the interrelated communications processes, channels and organisms that require each other to exist and by mutually interacting with each other impact on the way they manifest. Such a concept is therefore more complex and interdependent than a simple information space (or environment).

The communications ecosystem, where governments also operate, is complex, chaotic, confused and competitive. It evolves at a rapid pace and scale, so that governments struggle to keep up and adapt processes to a threat that is in continuous evolution.

Evolution in technology

Technology has profoundly changed the world and how humans communicate with and relate to one another. While we still use labels such as ‘cyber’ and ‘online and offline’, we observe that the fourth industrial revolution has irreversibly brought the internet into every aspect of human life so that the mere distinction between what is digital or analogue will soon become outdated.

Phenomena such as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), 5G, or augmented reality are still perceived as the future, but we can expect them to soon become part of mainstream society’s daily life. Their impact on social relations and application to the security field (both in terms of prevention and opportunity for governments) as well as misuse by hostile actors, are still under-explored.

The amount of data related to individuals that is sold and exchanged on a daily basis is enormous, making people valuable assets for the data they have. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are revolutionising social interactions, and human beings are increasingly confronted with non-human intelligent entities. New vulnerabilities will emerge from these new social constructs. Some are anticipating a shift in considering humans as critical infrastructure, from ’soft’ targets to ‘hard’ targets. Alongside the many advantages, technological innovation has also enabled security threats to develop fast. Terrorist and extremist groups have been pioneering the exploitation of innovative technology to widen their reach while enabling micro-targeting. As terrorism is a communications effort in itself, assessing the threat today should include technology in the scope of the evaluation, not only to understand the challenge and target audiences but also to develop a strategic communications response.

Attempts to approach the information environment as a static space, where senders and receivers are in a one-way (often top-down) relation, has undermined government efforts to communicate with its audiences.

Information consumption habits

The advancement of technology has played a pivotal role in lowering the barrier for people to access, share and produce information. The dynamic between people

and information is no longer a one-way flow, but a network of interconnected relations. Audiences are in fact active participants in the ecosystem, with social media boosting their ability to be over-connected on a global scale. Often overwhelmed with information, audiences have become more selective on content and sources of information, which has led to an increased tendency towards online (and offline) echo-chambers that reaffirm their views rather than questioning them.

With trust in media and institutions being eroded and an increasingly contested information space, peers seem to be those who ultimately influence audiences’ behaviours.

Looking at the media landscape and at individuals’ access to information therefore gives governments important insights on how audiences are informed about events, and consequently on what basis they will form their judgements and opinions. Monitoring how information is exchanged, sold and consumed is thus relevant when governments want to ‘understand their audience’.

People are continuously confronted with conflicting information from different sources. With the advent of catchy audio-visual content, the amount of time spent on reading has dropped. If an average individual has previously taken the time to open a newspaper and read articles, today the average news consumer scrolls down articles’ headings on the smartphone (often during commuting time, or whilst half-engaged in other activity). Audience engagement with nuanced debate and understanding facts has diminished.

As time devoted to reading the increased volume of news reduces, the capacity to digest the enormous quantity of information we receive has decreased. People’s attention is often gained by click baiting, catchy headings crafted primarily to gain ad revenues at click speed. Attempts of media outlets wishing to keep quality high have increasingly resulted in providing (better researched and soured) information behind a paywall. Concerns are emerging as to whether access to quality information will steadily become a privilege for those who can afford investing into quality information. Whilst the internet has promised to make information more accessible and cheaper for all, the future of quality information actually looks similar to when people bought their own hard copies of newspapers in the shop next door – but in digital format. This might result in an increasing fragmentation of audiences, based on taste or belief and on available financial resources.

The ready access to the internet and the audience fragmentation is also demonstrated by the proliferation of "alternative media". These alternative media often consider traditional mainstream media as an ‘elite’ or the ‘establishment’ because of their perceived political correctness and partisan reporting. Alternative media distinguish themselves from mainstream media, not just for the content they offer, but oftentimes for the language they use. Sometimes harsh and provocative, alternative media play with the boundaries of free speech and claim to be censored if concerns are raised as to their editorial line. Conspiracy theories populate some of those platforms, squeezing a wedge of distrust between audiences and governments as well as audiences and traditional media.

The internet, if anything, has increased the alternative offer by providing a platform (with social media, blogs and fora) for everyone to express any and all views freely. Whilst before, training and qualification was required to produce information, today the market is open to everyone who has an account on social media, or more simply, access to the internet. ‘Citizen’ or peer-to-peer journalism has questioned the orthodoxy of traditional news reporting maintaining a level of objectivity, instead relying on (hyper-)partisan and/or inexpert opinions. All opinions are valid, and controversial opinions sell.

More actors, more platforms, and more voices have created a cacophony of noise and left audiences to decide on the sources of information they trust. The variety of content now available has led people to question whether the past monopoly of information by traditional media outlets actually hid real information from the general public. Often, this criticism is accompanied by questions around the collusion between traditional media and governments, both considered by some as elitist powers.

If people do not trust governments, nor traditional media anymore, then who do they trust?

To navigate the noise, people tend to form opinions based on the trust of another person, the source of the information, rather than the information itself. Whilst technology has enabled information to be globally available, people increasingly rely on their close peers and trusted networks for information i.e. they ‘localise’ their sources of trust.

Whilst the new information ecosystem is more plural and varied, it nonetheless brings along the huge paradox of echo-chambers where audiences, submersed by information of all sorts, end up consuming material confirming their views and being less exposed to different opinions. If echo-chambers are to be considered inherently belonging to audiences due to confirmation biases of the human brain, social media algorithms which decide top posted content based on what you liked and read before, have accentuated this trend.

As the information market is becoming ever more bottom-up and user generated (disintermediation), traditional media and governments are suffering a credibility crisis. Whilst before people would rely on these sources, expecting the best quality information, this trust is now fractured2, and the old credibility legacy cannot be taken for granted anymore.

The currency of ‘truth’

In today’s communications ecosystem perceptions are reality. The way people perceive events and reality depends on how they obtain information and the quality of the information they receive. The way people perceive events and reality influences their behaviour. As strategic communications ultimately aims to address attitudes and behaviours, how events are reported and shared is fundamental to be able to ‘understand the audience’.

If misinformation and disinformation have always existed, the systematic attempts in recent years to pollute the information environment have been unprecedented – largely due to the technological advancements. The spread of false or decontextualised information, either intentionally (disinformation) or unintentionally (misinformation), coupled with an increased number of competing narratives around the same events have exacerbated audiences’ confusion and erosion of trust in institutions – governments included.

The confusion in people’s perception of events has led to the relativisation and commodification of the concept of ‘truth’. As it is said above, how people perceive events impacts also their behaviour, as their judgement depends on the lens through which they see the world. If the filter is distorted, and none (not even government) has the authority to lead the discourse, everything is true and nothing is false. In addition, a certain ‘fake news fatigue’ has been observed whereby some audiences give up on looking for the right information and accept to stay uninformed.

Bad quality information therefore not only impacts the credibility of the traditional media sector, but has repercussions on the whole of society, including widening the gap between governments and the population - especially in events where people are not interested in accessing information anymore and are thus not reachable through mainstream channels. This is particularly the case with those at risk of radicalisation.

Relativisation of reality has also started affecting people’s image and, therefore, their identity. While the entertaining power of deep fakes is not under question, the impact of their public accessibility on people’s perceptions is still to be determined. Whether they represent a political statement, a funny GIF or are embedded into a catchy game, deep fakes show that even people’s physical identity is relative and can be distorted. Such a trend is consistent with research showing young people who have multiple online identities and differentiate their deployment according to whom they relate to, or the different audiences of a certain account.

Growing concerns over people’s ability to navigate such a chaotic ecosystem has led governments to consider programmes to foster critical thinking and increase individuals’ digital skills. While there is still a huge discrepancy between different generations in society, the youngest being generally more tech-savvy and literate, some have argued that audiences have generally become increasingly critical of the content they consume.

In the near future, it can be anticipated that the mere access to a greater amount of information representing a plethora of differing world views will not confuse, but enable a generalised critical judgement, including of government communications. Times where audiences are passive consumers are already far behind. The increased concern over the spread of fake news has raised people’s degree of attention and discernment as to what they consume and how they engage with that information to understand their own reality.

Increased competition

The communications ecosystem where governments operate is highly competitive. A plethora of actors intervene, pre-empted hierarchies are torn down and whoever is able to cut through the noise wins a larger share of the audience. Whilst governments cannot rely on a one-way relation with audiences, the traditional role of the fourth estate, the media, is no longer the sole conduit or mediator between government and communities.

In the race for relevance, governments are playing a game where they are one actor among many. To reach, engage with and impact on audiences they need to compete with multiple actors and voices on multiple platforms: they face greater competition and struggle to be heard, especially by the numerous dissenting voices. Pressure groups, community groups, political and religious activists and many others represent opposing sources of information and critical voices that governments need to engage with or counter to gain the trust of their audiences. This is not expected to change in the near future.

In the competition for influence, however, not every actor has the same leverage, capabilities and room for manoeuvre. Other (foreign and domestic) actors than governments, for instance, can afford to speak bluntly without suffering from credibility or consensus loss. While governments and public broadcasters need to speak to all (even if not all listen to them), other actors can select and fragment their audience as well as maintaining lower ethical standards. Hyper-partisan outlets, which often use language at odds with the norm, address people’s fears and anger by fuelling resentment towards governments, elites and others.

There are, for instance, intrinsic challenges related to the communications of prevention policies, especially in times where public concern has diminished. In the aftermath of a terrorist attack, communications of prevention policies do not pose particular issues towards public opinion – whilst it carries the risk for some communities to feel unduly targeted. When the public attention declines, it is difficult for governments to justify proportionality of prevention measures both in terms of interference in private life and the allocation of public funding. These challenges for governments constitute easy gains for extremist communications who seek to blame governments and create division among vulnerable communities.

The latter is just one example to signify how, generally, Western governments operate in an unbalanced ecosystem where competitors, such as hostile state or non-state actors3, do not subscribe to the same rules, nor do they often sign up to the same values or constitutional and legal norms. However, they all play in the same communications ecosystem and compete for the same audiences. Paradoxically, the strict and progressive rules which Western governments are subject to with regard to the respect of fundamental rights or freedom e.g. free speech or press, are constantly abused by hostile actors, which is in turn causing Western governments to restrict these freedoms.

Competition for ideas

In the highly competitive communications ecosystem described in the previous section, there are a set of forces or actors that influence and move the mainstream discourse without needing to deploy violent content or spread terror. If governments are to successfully design prevention strategies extremisms must be understood for the idea of the society and values it promotes.

Whilst we cannot ignore the influencing efforts of terrorist groups, non-violent extremist communications also deserve governments’ attention. These alternative views of society often promote ways of living contrary to the core European liberal-democratic values such as nondiscrimination against minorities, and as such are extremist and destabilising the community and social cohesion, thus representing a security threat in the long-term.

Echoing a tendency of political movements in the last few years, a new trend in political extremism is on the rise, whereby constituencies from wings considered more extreme than both the extreme right and the extreme left are joining forces. Whilst their narratives are (for now) not violent, they lobby for a new social order inspired by protectionism and nationalism. This new category has a series of divisive narratives in common: the fight against capitalism and big multinational corporates, the EU and Euro, globalisation, governments and media as representatives of the corrupted elite and religious minorities. They advocate for a society where individuals’ rights and opportunities depend on religion, gender, nationality, ethnicity or race.

Besides extremists, pressure groups may also leverage people’s resentment and dictate the public discourse agenda, blaming governments for doing wrong or not doing enough. Climate change, for instance, is a policy field where expectations towards governments are growing, and through the activities of powerful activists, the topic has recently got into the mainstream. Some have started considering climate change an urgent matter that can affect the survival of the human species, and governments are perceived not to have done enough to address this issue.

While climate activists are not necessarily to be considered extremist, nor are their communications, the debate around climate change triggers fundamental conversations around the fear for survival of the human race. Fear for self-existence might be sufficient leverage for people to step up and mount serious protests to dispense ‘justice’ in the place of public authorities – when governments fail to address their concerns. Though this represents a ‘worst case scenario’, recent events around climate change show the fierce competition and pressure that governments face in the communications ecosystem, as well as how societal dynamics that are apparently detached from violent extremism might evolve into such if not carefully addressed at an early stage. Once again, governments are caught in an ecosystem where other actors influence the public agenda and challenge governments’ action – and thus their communication strategies.

As our societies generally become more complex, the set of beliefs individuals adhere to changes so that even the identification of sacred values, i.e. values which the person considers as governing the society, tends to blur. Whilst the political discourse is filled up with continuous references to what common (national) values are, it is ever more difficult to find a common minimum denominator across all audiences – and extremists smartly exploit that division by feeding the ‘culture of grief’.

While previous generations were perhaps more solidly considering those common values as the key foundation of our societies, more recent generations sometimes take them for granted (and therefore do not consider it as something that can be at stake) or deeply question them as a sustainable basis for our living together. In fact, modern societies are not homogeneous when it comes to what is sacred for people. To navigate the confusion, new tribes grow around these different definitions of ‘sacred’ by shaping their strong identities often in contrast to one another.

The topic of immigration triggers such a debate and represents another example of the current communications struggle that governments face. The public discourse around immigration into Europe is dominated by narratives relying on simplistic terms which ultimately make a highly complex phenomenon into black and white propositions, ‘in’ versus ‘out’ or ‘us’ versus ‘them’. In the realm of such a polarised environment, governments face blame from all sides; from those who have a supportive stance towards migration and therefore consider governments’ action too repressive as well as from those who consider immigration a threat to the job market (and ultimately European culture) and thus point the finger at governments who are not able to enforce their sovereignty and control external borders.

More than ever, European society is populated by new tribes, which attempt to navigate the multiple definitions of ‘sacred values’ by shaping their strong identities often in contrast to one another. Extremists exploit the division and argue that such plurality of cultures cannot be reconciled in our societies.

Helped by algorithms and filter bubbles that lower the chances for rational debate to take place, polarisation of views is exploited as well as fuelled by extremists both online and offline. This is particularly true, for example, in the context of post-attack communications5, where terrorists and extremists exploit the momentum of general panic to spread their dividing narratives and increase the level of polarisation in the public discourse. These are typically moments where the space for rational debate disappears and audiences tend to radicalise their views. As a result, in some cases, hate crime figures have increased in the aftermath of terrorist attacks.

By making best use of all the communications tools available, (foreign and domestic) hostile actors have actively abused fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of press or speech, to influence and leverage people’s sentiments and behaviours against the ‘other’, be it religious, sexual or ethnic minority. They have hence created a ‘permissive environment’ where extremist discourse is normalised and a sense of grief towards mainstream society is constantly spread. In such conditions, where audiences feel increasingly not belonging to and not accepted by their society, the social contract that keeps our society together is undermined, and ideology, be it religious or politically-inspired, can easily motivate people to act upon their beliefs.

Whether online or offline, extremists exploit their networks and use their technological skills to spot vulnerabilities in audiences such as disenfranchisement, low levels of trust in public authorities and lack of sense of belonging, and leverage them to create a fertile ground for radicalisation.

Audiences’ vulnerabilities

Understanding the audience is a well understood core principle of communications; a granular understanding of the audiences is fundamental to an effective strategic communications approach. A whole entire paper would be needed to explore the macro tribes that are forming and reforming in the European cultural and communication landscape. This remains a constant activity. The shifting changes in the ecosystem will change the macro tribal grouping of populations within Europe. This needs to constantly be monitored for communications to be effective.

That said, audience categorisation needs to move beyond identifying audiences based on their religion or political beliefs, but attitudes towards society, governments and the future.

Such views better represent a vulnerability that extremists would seek to exploit through their ideology, either being religious or politically oriented. Hostile actors have massively exploited such vulnerabilities by depicting governments as failing to fulfil their duties with regard to their populations, or acting contrary to their perceived world view.

Categorisation of audiences at a national level provides insights for governments, but requires them to dig further and look up for vulnerabilities within localised context to be effective. Strategic communications as an approach helps governments to design their strategies based on a solid analysis of an audiences’ set of beliefs or values.

Strategic recommendations

In response to the view of the future trends as outlined above, we provided seven recommendations to our partners to address these challenges in the year(s) ahead.

1. Thinking Strategically

Governments need to think strategically and long-term to properly address the P-CVE challenges of today and in the future. Governments need to better understand both the continually evolving communications ecosystem and wider societal challenges, including the role of nonviolent extremists in creating division in society, to explain why prevention efforts require continued investment to address them in the long-term.

2. Building Cohesion

Governments need to take more notice of social fragility and work to ensure more cohesion. The issue with sacred values, and the use of disinformation and terrorism to weaken societies lays them open for a more kinetic or cyberattack. Therefore, addressing civilian resilience to external and internal hostile influences in the domestic setting, in what is increasingly a hybrid war environment is essential.

3. Continued Engagement

Governments need to be better at communicating in the modern world and see communications as a continued engagement, not a product output. Engaging with disillusioned audiences on their terms is required to inculcate the national narrative. However, this needs to be done with empathy and compassion, through listening and creating personal agency, not through diktat and an approach that could be perceived as ‘looking down’ at people. Engagement with vulnerable audiences should be the prism rather than alternative or counter-messaging

4. Trust and Credibility

Governments need to consider trust and credibility when determining policy and communication. Consistency is key in their policies or they’ll lose their credibility. Foreign policy is of the greatest concern in this space, with regards to the attitudes of audiences towards the actions of Western governments to other less free countries. However, this is equally important at home with regards to minorities, cultural sensitivities, tolerance, toleration and freedoms. Protecting liberal western values from those who seek to use these values to undermine society is a challenge that needs a solution. Preventing polarisation of the democratic political discourse and creating space for non-hostile debate will continue to be a communication challenge in the social media age for all democratic citizens.

5. Understanding Technology

Governments need to better explore how terrorists and extremists misuse and exploit new technology. Government, law enforcement and security have often been behind the curve in understanding the use of communications by disruptive and hostile actors. As technology continues to change, understanding the misuse of technology is as important as adapting to its use. Governments need to be better prepared for and predict the future.

6. Thinking Holistically

Governments need to think holistically about how to properly address the various vulnerabilities of different audiences. Government should engage and work with all sectors relevant to prevention, including education and social policy areas, both in and outside of government, including civil society and the private sector. Governments should both de-securitise and move away from the over-siloing of prevention efforts and strategic communications activity to mobilise a multi-sector, whole-of-society response.

7. Supporting innovation

Governments should guide and support innovation by fostering action from others.

A whole of society approach requires government to look beyond its own capability and partnering with civil society, to the partnerships that can be built with the private sector and business. How all partners can be better mobilised to promote a narrative should be something governments should consider in the years ahead.

This paper was written as a concluding report of our work with the European Strategic Communications Network at the end of 2019. Thanks go to Giulia Giacomelli who was instrumental in writing the piece and the thinking that has gone into it.

Please note that it has been edited from the original, as elements have been removed to meet commercial and other sensitivities.


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