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Speaking to and about extremists

Terrorism counter-narratives can reinforce the frames they seek to weaken

Recent years have seen a steep increase in discussions about radicalization and de-radicalization of extremists in Europe and the United States. Not only have many countries developed strategies to counter terrorist activities but have also implemented programs to de-radicalize individuals in order to reintegrate them into society. In this context academics, practitioners and politicians alike have engaged with the concept of counter-narratives and alternative narratives.

As the names suggest, counter-narratives are statements that seek to refute ideological claims used by extremists. For instance, if a right-wing extremist movement claims that immigrants are responsible for most rape cases against white women, a counter-narrative response could employ criminal statistics to negate this claim.

An alternative narrative, on the other hand, is not only designed to counteract a certain allegation but offers an alternative viewpoint. It proposes a positive option instead of offering only a negation. For example, many jihadist movements claim that the West is at war with Islam. An alternative narrative could offer evidence for inclusive democratic societies, freedom of religion and cite examples of collaboration between Western nations and Muslims.

Language, however, and how it influences our perceptions is more complicated than the counter-narrative versus alternative narrative dichotomy suggests and politicians, journalists, academics and de-radicalization practitioners need to be aware of the pitfalls of their linguistic choices.

In her excellent book Political Framing (available in German) Elisabeth Wehling, a leading German expert on language and cognition currently teaching at UC Berkeley, deconstructs the use of frames and the effects of this usage on our perceptions. She reminds us that frames are used by us at all times and in all circumstances as cognitive shortcuts to transport meaning beyond the words spoken.

Frames influence our thinking on a very deep level, determining what we pay attention to and what meaning to attribute to certain terms. A famous example is an experiment with native German and Spanish speakers who were asked to describe a bridge (grammatically female in German, but male in Spanish) and key (grammatically male in German, but female in Spanish). Whereas Germans described the bridge as beautiful and elegant, Spanish speakers described it as strong and dangerous; whereas the Spanish associated keys with the attributes ‘cute’ and ‘small,’ the Germans described it as hard and heavy.

Language influences thought and linguistic frames especially do so in a profound manner, including in the realm of politics.

Speaking of a “tax burden” carries certain connotations about the negative effects of taxes rather than framing them as a contribution to public functioning: they are heavy and exhausting for us. “Tax haven” on the other hand carries positive connotations rather than highlighting that people withdraw their support for their own community.

Because of how profoundly language influences our thought, these frames are more than metaphors and play a large part in determining public opinion. Counterintuitively, Wehling also showed that even the negation of a frame actually reinforces it. To stick with the previous example, claiming “Down with tax havens!” does not lead to a negative perception of tax havens but reinforces the positive image associated with the word “haven.”

Wehling states that if one wants to counter verbal attacks, one should avoid using the same frames as the opponent, because it reinforces the picture the frame seeks to transmit into the listeners.

The fact that negation of a frame leads to cognitive reinforcement presents a problematic condition for practitioners in the field of de-radicalization and politicians seeking to refute claims by extremist organizations. When politicians or journalists speak of countering the “Islamic State,” it makes no cognitive difference whether they employ the frame of the “so-called Islamic State” or the “terror organization Islamic State.”

By using the phrase “Islamic State,” they associate the larger frames of Islam and statehood with the group and thereby reinforce both the notion that IS is Islamic and a state. This causes the group to gain legitimacy as a religious authority and a state entity even when they are verbally attacked.

Even worse, linguistically linking terrorism with Islam into a single frame leads to a cognitive connection between the terms, a concept called Hebbian learning. This is visible on a neuron-level in our brains and influences our perception not only of IS, but of Islam, terrorism and statehood: A recipe for long-term polarization of diverse societies and a hardening of stereotyping against Muslims.

The fact that negation reinforces the meaning one seeks to counter is also very problematic in de-radicalization efforts involving counter-narratives. Counter-narratives are designed as a negation of the frame used by one’s opponent, in this case the extremist organization. But because of our cognitive wiring, counter-narratives can actually manifest the meaning of the very frames they seek to counter.

De-radicalization processes go hand in hand with a change in viewpoint or mindset and often involve counselling and other measures heavily reliant on the verbal transmission of meaning. The success of these measures can be jeopardized if counter-narratives are employed in such a way that they reuse the frames set by extremist groups. This makes de-radicalization efforts even more difficult than they already are.

Wehling clearly states that we always use frames in our communication; there is no human speech free of frames and it should not be our ambition to eliminate frames and counter-frames from our engagement with radicalization and extremism. But we need to be more aware of the terms we are using and the effects they have on our perception.

We can and should counter claims by extremist movements and not solely rely on alternative narratives, but we need to re-examine the way we construct counter-narratives. The most successful counter-narrative will be one that does not re-use the terminology used by extremists, but constructs a counter-claim based on a different linguistic toolbox.


Linda Schlegel holds an MA in Terrorism, Security and Society from King’s College London and is currently the counter-terrorism consultant at Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Berlin. Her research interests include (online-)radicalization, social movements, extremism and societal resilience to terrorism. She writes regularly for Global Risk Insights, Project for the Study of the 21st Century and other think tanks and has been published in the Journal for De-Radicalization.

Follow her on Twitter: @LiSchlegel.


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