Article in DefenceIQ: How to empower and deploy credible voices
Our Director of Audience Analysis, Lucy Froggatt, offers a fresh perspective on the debate around the deployment of credible voices to counter violent extremism for DefenceIQ.
Anthropologist Scott Atran (2015) argues that “there is no shortage of credible voices ready to engage globally”. But as he points out, at the community level, we need to show which narratives work, for whom and in what contexts.
The issue of credibility and voice is not new; countless research papers, debates and policies continue to be centred around the topic. Yet, in both theory and practice, it remains a thorny issue, lacking in nuance. So, how do we begin to identify and empower with authenticity grassroots groups and individuals?
Enabling local people to express their knowledge through participatory approaches is key to empowering credible voices. This article draws lessons from the fields of participatory development and Anthropology and distils them into ten important points to consider when supporting credible voices.
1 Long-term sustainability
The concept of participatory development (Chambers, 1983), with its move away from top-down policies to bottom-up, micro-level analysis, remains a powerful component of any approach. For positive and sustainable change, it is not enough to amplify local community-based voices; counter-narratives relating to factors that could destabilise human security need to be owned by them. An approach in which the power and control is retained by dominant bodies, such as private sectors and the state, can undermine trust and the perceived legitimacy of counter-narratives, as well as the individuals advocating them. If governments seek to reinforce credible voices, they need to give them platforms and independence to speak. This reinforces representatives who wield authority at the community level.
2 What makes people credible?
Shared experience, knowledge, and perceived goodwill are important components of trust and credibility. Individuals are more likely to perceive like-minded others (their in-group) more positively. Credibility therefore depends on perspective. You can reinforce a coherent strategic narrative whilst acknowledging multiple voices and perspectives.
Western governments laden with foreign and domestic policy are framed, often rightly, as inappropriate messengers. Engaging the right people opens up avenues for dialogue and trust. At its most tangible, the resonance of a particular narrative, from a trusted intermediary, influences behaviour.
4 Whose side are you on?
Socio-cultural understanding is crucial. One influencer or voice may elicit different attitudes according to the audience. It is important, therefore, to consider whether individuals or groups have the authority, if not the power, required to reinforce the messages they deliver. For example, disaffected youth may not see formal authorities as acting for them. Indeed, they may seek to rebel against them. Credible voices need not emanate from institutions or traditional powers. The need for a genuine alternative may resonate with those who feel marginalised.
5 Attractive alternatives
Extremist groups often frame themselves as attractive alternatives to the mainstream. Consider support for such groups in terms of the pragmatic and emotional appeal that these groups provide. Within this context, language is readily used as a tool for promoting legitimacy or stigma. Understanding the nuances which lead to experiences of exclusion, inequality and specific moments of influence can help to mobilise and appropriate responses.
6 Openness to a message
Attitudes and behaviours are subject to scrutiny based on group standards. People are more likely to comply with what is already considered to be socially acceptable – or not too far from accepted social standards. Credible voices amplify existing understandings of cultural values, religion, entertainment, and what matters within a social network. Often ‘popular culture’ narratives are more resonant than factual, historical accounts of the same event.
7 Empathy is king
Empathy can be used as a tool for strategic advantage. Empathy fuels connection and builds rapport. At its heart is meaning making, from the other’s perspective. As Simon Baron-Cohen identifies, empathy involves the ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and responding to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion. No society’s culture is uniform. The social norms, values and expectations of any population will be subject to the individual and group’s experiences, attitudes and assumptions. This is why empathy is most effectively established by credible voices.
8 Checking our assumptions
Anthropologists often identify how different communities make sense of the world. There is a strong requirement for social intelligence and enhanced understanding of other perspectives. Anthropology highlights this understanding in the context of specific socio-cultural environments. This helps to overcome biases, fuel connections and build rapport. The existence of different points of view are essential when seeking to understand the root causes, for example, of extreme violence. We need to dig underneath our own perspectives in order to identify the agendas underpinning our own narratives and rhetoric.
9 Transmission of ideas
It is necessary to understand local content, culture, history and existing social platforms. Socialisation is the main way in which cultural norms and criteria are transferred from one generation to the next. This is often the principle responsibility of families and institutions like school, sports clubs, television and media. Social networks will influence how the aspirational status of groups are affected.
10 Measuring effect
Measures of effect should be based on community-level engagements with the specific distribution methods used for the message. They should relate not only to reach and sharing of content, but also to qualitative measures of emotional and linguistic uptake. Our KPIs may need to shift in order to account for the fact that having a real community-based effect may, in some cases, be generating ‘inaction’ or restraint, as much as direct action.
Empowering credible voices is not about who shouts the loudest, makes the headlines or controls the resources in a conflict. We need to account for multiple perspectives and specific socio-cultural contexts in order to facilitate sustainable and positive movements.