Narrative Management in Conflict Dynamics
Facilitating Peace Through Dialogue
“NARRATIVE MANAGEMENT”: AN INTEGRATED 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 fueled.
Countering these developments as early as possible is the current approach of the project “Narrative Management”, which is being pursued in Ghana and Gambia (see background) in West Africa together with Freie Universität Berlin, I. German/Dutch Corps, Project Lighthouse Africa and in cooperation with the Hanns Seidel Foundation and the Common Effort Community – Video | Film
Narrative Management (NM) is to be understood as a concept that brings together key points from various current guidelines (including Preventing Crises, Managing Conflicts, Promoting Peace) and expert recommendations (including the report of the German government’s Commission on the Causes of Flight). The concept enables the practical implementation of elements of the networked approach (integrated approach) based on three interdependent pillars, namely security and development, communication, and perspective development (with a special focus on youth and women).
An initial focus of NM is to integrate as many actors as possible from the international security and development architecture in order to sensitize them to this particularly relevant communication dimension, to involve them in NM activities, and to prevent projects from counteracting or duplicating each other.
A second focus is therefore to better understand and strengthen 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 and to find and disseminate reliable information in their personal communication networks.
The concept’s third focus is on the individual perception of perspectives and their development, especially for the younger generation. Primary for the development of perspectives is the promotion of social cohesion and participation, since active participation is the core to reduce hopelessness and divisive phenomena and thus to counteract the development of regional crisis preconditions.
Communication will here be as well an essential element to moderate expectations and to give access to reliable information from networks of respected, experienced and explicitly young mentors for orientation in regard to individual perspectives.
An orientation that helps especially educated young people to better assess their own situation and, aware of their own abilities, to develop appropriate strategies to improve it. Specific support measures for girls and women will include involvement in narrative management networks. This will be done through various programs such as mentoring, coaching, training, and start-up camps.
For NM, a well-established and trusted network in the nexus of development and security – communication – perspective development is the foundation and bracket of all activities. The model for this network is the Common Effort Community, which was founded in 2010 by the 1 German/Dutch Corps and currently comprises more than 60 civilian, military, governmental and non-governmental organizations, mainly from Germany and the Netherlands with a focus on civil-military cooperation and the practical implementation of the networked approach (integrated approach).
The NM concept has developed over the past three years and during numerous workshops of the Common Effort Community, with the involvement of the ministries BMVg, AA and BMZ, to such an extent that it has already been possible to implement the first practical steps.
Initial activities in Ghana, Gambia, and Senegal, funded and administratively supported by Hanns Seidel Foundation, laid the foundation for the implementation of the Narrative Management Project in the West Africa and Sahel region in July, September and October 2021.
Central elements were a workshop with stakeholders from the police, military, media, economy, religion, youth, culture, environment, international non-governmental organizations, science, politics and administration in The Gambia and Ghana. A film documentary on the measure provides a good introduction to the topic #documentary_2021and concept.
It is planned to expand the project beyond the current project regions and to involve further countries and relevant actors. Just come along, we will keep sharing. Snapshots and background information on that very special joy of bringing people together. Together studying, teaching, and thus strengthening the resilience against evil in this world.
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.
Narrative management is a key concept that draws its innovative power from the consistent combination of existing approaches: building and sustaining a trusted network of key stakeholders, developing a system of trusted information collection and distribution with local ownership, and working closely with international actors to strengthen resilience against destabilization attempts within the region. Implementation will also begin with in-depth empirical data collection and analysis to better understand local communication networks, influencer structures, and information flows. The system will be built through collaboration between European and local experts, including training workshops, a train-the-trainer program, citizen training and education programs, and the cooperative development of a robust information center maintained by local stakeholders. As a key outcome, community resilience against fake news, hate speech, and propaganda will be enhanced, as well as synchronization of actions by relevant peacebuilding and development actors.
One of the main results of the initial activities in Ghana, Gambia, and Senegal is that the concept pillar “communication” is a key element for implementing the networked approach. A comprehensive understanding of communication structures, of information and its distribution makes a significant contribution to the ability to engage in dialogue and to stabilization in an environment characterized by weak statehood. The repeated military coups in West Africa, the multiplication of anti-European resentment and, not least, the spread of jihadist propaganda represent the negative climax of increasing destabilization with all its consequences, which dominate current media coverage.
Against this background, the NM team is convinced that these asymmetric challenges cannot be solved by conventional measures alone, neither military nor developmental (see also CE Sahel Report). Consequently, the core working group and all local and international stakeholders involved so far conclude that the initial measures should be translated into project proposals in order to put the practical benefits of the networked approach into value in the not yet destabilized countries of West Africa and the Sahel region. The success of the implemented measures is ensured by the composition of the core team and the close cooperation with local partners. The pillars of security and development, communication and perspective development are covered with far-reaching expertise.
The concept is well scalable with regard to reform partner countries of German development cooperation in Africa and African countries threatened by destabilization through disinformation and the hybrid context. In addition, NM offers a high connectivity in the global context.