Facilitating Peace Through Dialogue
“Narrative management”: an approach to strengthening social communication structures for peacebuilding
Under the hashtag #AllEyesOnISIS, the ISIS “social media division” prepared the attack on the Iraqi metropolis of Mosul in June 2014, reinforced by an army of Twitter bots. The horrific torture videos posted under this hashtag went viral, filling the screens of millions of users, including those of Mosul’s defenders. In this way, they served their purpose: #AllEyesOnISIS had the effect of an invisible artillery bombardment, in its aftermath 1500 ISIS fighters were able to drive 60,000 Iraqi police and soldiers out of the city without firing a shot. Something similar seems to have happened in Afghanistan in the fall of 2021.
This example is just one of many that show how effectively extremists in all parts of the world use social media and elaborate communication strategies. Especially in the currently contested Sahel region, such strategies are used to destabilize countries and regions. To this end, so-called narratives are disseminated in which disinformation, hatred and propaganda are combined to create narratives that appeal to existing fears, prejudices and needs of the local population. As a result, trust in institutions and fellow citizens is damaged and conflicts between population groups are fuelled.
Counteracting these developments as early as possible is the current approach of the project “Narrative Management”, which is currently being pursued in Ghana and Gambia (see background) in West Africa under the direction of the Hanns Seidel Foundation with partners such as the Free University of Berlin and Project Lighthouse Africa e.V. – Video | Film
Firstly, this project focuses on understanding and strengthening communication between citizens and other relevant actors in vulnerable regions: After a scientific data collection, a training concept will be developed and implemented to allow journalists, citizens and other relevant actors to recognize propaganda and disinformation themselves and to find and disseminate reliable information in their personal communication networks.
The second focus is to integrate as many actors as possible in the international security and development architecture in order to sensitize them to this particularly relevant communication dimension, to involve them in the project’s activities and to prevent projects from counteracting or duplicating each other.
The aim of the project, which will run for an initial period of three years, is to train journalists, citizens, governmental and non-governmental actors in selected project communities, as well as international development and security institutions, in dealing with disinformation, hate speech and propaganda, and to make the regions concerned more resilient to destabilization, thus improving the security situation.
It is planned to expand the project beyond the two current project regions of Northern Ghana and The Gambia and to involve further countries and relevant actors.
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The stability in the northern region of Ghana is affected by the volatile and worsening security situation in the Sahel. The situation is characterized by a significant spill-over of violent extremist organizations’ (VEO) activity and influence from Burkina Faso into all neighboring countries including Ghana, particularly in the rural areas in the north of Tamale (ELVA Spill-over Report 2021). In other West African countries the context is different, but the challenges of VEO’s influence are similar. The Gambia, in the very West of the continent, has no direct border to the Sahel countries but is a less stable democratic system. The Gambia has a large diaspora in Europe and experiences increasing extremist and jihadist activities, thus it will serve as a second country for the intervention of this project, in order to prove the stability of the envisaged action under different external conditions.
The main challenge in the two countries is that their vulnerability in terms of climate change, stalling socio-economic development, high youth unemployment rate and inefficient governance structures is exploited by VEOs. One of their core strategies is to destabilize countries by spreading narratives based on fake news, disinformation and hate speech. This is damaging generalized and institutional trust in the respective countries and local communities as well as wrecking social cohesion. It is particularly difficult for international political actors to react in an effective and coherent way (Common Effort Workshop 2021) due to a severe lack of knowledge about communication networks, information flow and capabilities of coping with disinformation as well as a lack of appropriate means of effective countering islamist propaganda narratives.
The project will address these challenges under the term “Narrative Management” by establishing a trusted network of key stakeholders, developing a system of trusted information collection and distribution in local ownership and under tight cooperation with international actors in order to strengthen resilience within the region against destabilization attempts by VEOs. The system will be built up in cooperation of European and Ghanaian/Gambian experts, including training workshops, a train-the-trainer program, citizen training and education programs and the cooperative development of a robust information hub that is maintained by local stakeholders. A well established and trusted network of key stakeholders in the nexus Development and Security – Communications – Perspective Development will be the basement and bracket of the narrative management approach. Role model for this network is the Common Effort Community, formatted by 1 (German/Netherlands) Corps in 2010 and currently including more than 60 organizations – civil, military, governmental and non-governmental – mainly from Germany and the Netherlands, focusing on civil-military cooperation.
The term „narrative management“ has been coined in the field of organizational/corporate communication, where narratives or „storytelling“ is used to enhance knowledge management in complex environments. In communication practice, it is most relevant in the context of crisis communication, because crises are often characterized by a divergence of a strong need for information on one hand and the availability of just ambiguous, incomplete and contested (e.g. by propaganda of opponents) information on the other hand.
In our approach, “narrative management” is used as a concept of enabling communities and stakeholders to a) assess and to rate information and sources regarding their reliability (e.g. better understand islamist propaganda narratives), to b) produce contextualized information themselves and share these narratives – information that is enriched with relevant context to make the core information better understandable and accessible by recipients – among their peer groups, to, c) coordinate activities based on reliable information and d) as a result to increase resilience against fake news, hate speech and propaganda.
Hence, narrative management aims on developing a trustful information environment in ownership of the local population that makes relevant information better accessible and builds a basis for participatory peace-building and development in the region. It is not a tool for propaganda or influencing people in an illegitimate way.