WEAPONIZED WORDS: THE ROLE OF STRATEGIC PERSUASION IN

VIOLENT RADICALIZATION AND COUNTER-RADICALIZATION

Coming in 2019, Cambridge University Press will publish my first book, tentatively called Weaponized Words: The Strategic Role of Strategic Persuasion in Violent Radicalization and Counter-Radicalization. This book will feature discussions of how persuasion theory not only explains how terrorist propaganda works, but also how we can use that theory to beat terrorists at their own game. This book will provide practitioners and analysts the practical (and understandable) guidance they need to fight terrorists' attempts to recruit and radicalize potential fighters. Just as important, Weaponized Words will be written to help inform the casual reader about issues related to terrorist communication, violent radicalization, and how we can fight both. 

To introduce potential readers to the book and what I hope to accomplish with it, this page will feature summaries of the nine chapters (organized in three parts) that will comprise Weaponized Words. Of course, these chapters might change a bit as the book develops. For now, though, interested readers can expect illustrative case examples, accessible descriptions of communication theories, and specific guidelines on how these theories can be turned into action to challenge terrorist propaganda.

TABLE OF CONTENTS (CLICK LINKS TO JUMP)

INTRODUCTION

 

Weaponized Words opens with the story of "Alex." A young woman from rural Washington state, Alex has few friends, and spends much of her time alone and online. After viewing the ISIS execution of journalist James Foley, her loneliness turned to curiosity, which ultimately led her to begin talking with an ISIS recruiter who attempted to lure her to Syria in support of the terrorist organization. Alex proved to be an easy target for this recruiter, as she converted to Islam and began preparations for her departure... all as a function of her communicative interactions with a few ISIS supporters.

How could a few months of communication convince an introverted girl from the corner of the United States to support a brutal terrorist organization halfway around the world? And how can communication be used to bring the Alexes of the world back from the brink of violent extremism? The introduction of Weaponized Words lays out these questions and shows how the different chapters in the book will provide us meaningful answers to them.

PART 1: THE FOUNDATIONS OF PERSUASION, RADICALIZATION, AND TERRORISM

 

The first part of the book will orient the reader on issues related to persuasion, radicalization, and terrorism. Most people tend not to think about communication as being a central part of violent radicalization, counter-radicalization, or the performance of terrorism. So, to help the reader develop an understanding of how communication affects these processes, Part 1 (comprised of Chapters 1 and 2) will cover some basic information that will prepare the reader to better understand and interpret the other sections of the book. If the lessons learned throughout Weaponized Words were a house, Part 1 would be its foundation.

CHAPTER 1

 WORDS ARE LOADED PISTOLS: VIOLENT RADICALIZATION AS A PRODUCT OF PERSUASION

 

Chapter 1 covers the nuts and bolts of the concepts that will be fundamental ​to the rest of the book. These concepts include persuasion, radicalization, violent radicalization, countering violent extremism (CVE), and of course, terrorism. This chapter will cover several models of radicalization and violent radicalization to show the reader how communication has (or has not) been thought of as part of these processes. Some of these models include McCauley and Moskalenko's Pyramid models, Moghaddam's Staircase to Terrorism, Stahelski's social-psychological conditioning model, and others. 

Ultimately, this chapter will show that radicalization is essentially a fundamental change in beliefs and attitudes to become consistent with an ideology that promotes political violence. If we think of radicalization in that way, then we can consider it a persuasive process -- one we can attack.

CHAPTER 2

THE RIDDLE OF THE SPHINX: PAST EFFORTS AT PERSUASIVE COUNTER-RADICALIZATION

 

Ancient Greek tradition dictates that the Sphinx, a creature with the head of a human and the body of a lion, guarded the gates of Thebes. Legend has it that travelers could only enter the city if they solved a riddle posed by the Sphinx. If a traveler failed to answer the Sphinx's riddle, he was killed and devoured. Though couched in mythology, the lesson is clear; although correct answers can yield progress, incorrect answers can result in disaster.

 

Such is the reality for attempts at counter-radicalization. To familiarize readers with past efforts at communicative counter-radicalization, Chapter 2 will cover several programs for CVE and PVE. The failure of some of these programs to use empirical data as their bases has led to their failures, which in some cases, caused more harm than they prevented. This chapter highlights these failures, and the devastating effects of getting counter-radicalization wrong.

PART 2: PERSUASION THEORY, RADICALIZATION, AND COUNTER-RADICALIZATION

 

After covering the basics of communication, radicalization, and counter-radicalization, we move on to the heart of Weaponized Words. Part 2 (which is comprised of Chapters 3-7) features discussions of specific perspectives related to persuasion that can inform our understanding of how strategic persuasive communication affects social and psychological processes related to terrorism, and guide our communicative efforts to overcome the siren call of terrorist propaganda.

 

Each chapter contains three sections:

  • a description of a long-standing persuasion theory or perspective,

  • a synopsis of how the persuasiveness of terrorist propaganda can be explained by these theories/perspectives, and

  • specific guidance on the development of counter-radicalization messages that take advantage of these theories/perspectives.

This section will show readers the psychology of terrorist propaganda, and how to defeat it.

CHAPTER 3

TERRORIST NARRATIVES AND COUNTER-NARRATIVES

 

Chapter 3 will examine the use of narratives for promoting radicalization and counter-radicalization. More specifically, this chapter will detail how many terrorist groups, both past and present, have utilized narratives as tools for distributing their ideologies and promoting the adoption of beliefs and attitudes consistent with it. This chapter will cover several terrorist groups and their stories, including the Animal Liberation Front, The Islamic State, white nationalists, sovereign citizens, the Provisional Irish Republican Army, Aum Shinrikyo, and many others.

Part of this chapter will describe scientific findings related to the persuasive power of narratives, and discuss the importance of distributing counter-narratives through carefully-chosen sources. Taken together, these scientific findings will show just how important narratives can be for changing individuals' beliefs, attitudes, intentions, and sometimes, their behaviors. 

 

As a critical segment of Weaponized Words, this chapter will show that narratives are a crucial component of terrorists' propaganda strategies, and must be a central part of our efforts to challenge terrorist ideologies. To assist in the development of scientifically-founded counter-narratives, this chapter will describe specific steps that can be taken to analyze target audiences, evaluate terrorist narratives, and incorporate the right themes into our counter-narratives.

CHAPTER 4

VACCINATING AGAINST THE ENEMY: THE STRATEGIC USE OF COMMUNICATIVE INOCULATION

 

Chapter 4 will describe the process of "communicative inoculation" as a method for defending against the adoption of targeted beliefs and attitudes. Before showing how communicative inoculation occurs in the context of terrorism, radicalization, and potentially, counter-radicalization, this chapter demonstrates how useful this strategy has been for strengthening resistance to persuasion in several other domains. Most importantly, this chapter will show the consistency with which communicative inoculation has protected vulnerable individuals from adopting "problematic" beliefs and attitudes. This consistency makes inoculation a very promising strategy for preventing the assimilation of terrorist ideologies. So, this chapter will not only describe cases in which terrorist groups used inoculation to help radicalize potential members, but also provide specific protocols for using inoculation to protect against terrorist propaganda.

CHAPTER 5

THE REASONED ACTION OF ENGAGEMENT IN AND DISENGAGEMENT FROM TERRORISM

 

This chapter will focus on Ajzen and Fishbein's Theory of Reasoned Action. Although this theory is not inherently related to communication, it does provide us a framework for thinking about how potential recruits react to terrorist propaganda and how best to develop and target strategic messages geared towards counter-radicalization. This theory shows that there are specific "pressure points" where persuasive messages might be most effective in affecting target audiences' beliefs, attitudes, intentions, and behaviors. With a focus on these pressure points, we can gain a better understanding of why terrorist propaganda is more (or less) persuasive at a given point. More importantly, though, this chapter will show where and when messages intended to challenge terrorist propaganda could be most effectively distributed. In a way, the Theory of Reasoned Action provides a "map" that helps us aim our strategic messages most effectively.

CHAPTER 6

FUNCTIONAL ATTITUDES, RADICALIZATION, AND COUNTER-RADICALIZATION

 

This chapter will discuss Functional Attitude Theory and how it relates to issues surrounding the performance and prevention of terrorism. This theory says that people develop attitudes specifically to serve functions for themselves, particularly to achieve goals they want to achieve. This is critical for persuasion, including in contexts related to individual-level radicalization and counter-radicalization. If a message developer knows the function that an attitude serves for an individual, the message can be specifically tailored to that individual. This chapter shows how terrorist groups develop effective propaganda by targeting functional attitudes related to intended targets' needs for safety, ideology, and social cohesion. Although terrorists have historically been very good at this, we can develop our own messages to target the goals of audience members, thereby increasing their persuasive power. This chapter describes how that can be done.

CHAPTER 7

TERRORISM IS THEATER: THE PERSUASIVE STRENGTH OF EMOTIONS

 

In Chapter 7, we turn to one of the most basic characteristics of terrorist communication -- its tendency to arouse intense emotions. Historically speaking, terrorist propaganda is designed to appeal to a handful of emotions to achieve strategic objectives, including recruitment and radicalization. This chapter will show not only how terrorist groups prompt emotional and psychological responses in target audiences, but also how the action tendencies associated with these responses drive individuals to support or engage in terrorism. Although the emotional power of terrorist propaganda is a huge driver of its persuasiveness, we can utilize that same power to challenge terrorist messaging. It is possible to generate messages that elicit feelings of happiness, guilt, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust -- all of which can be used to push people away from terrorist groups and their activities. This chapter provides guidelines for harnessing these emotions and their persuasive power.

PART 3: CONCLUSIONS AND WAYS FORWARD

 

In this final segment of Weaponized Words, we turn to how the knowledge gained from the previous chapters can inform our understanding of terrorist propaganda, its persuasiveness, and what we can do to fight it. Specifically, this part of the book (which will be comprised of only two chapters), will consider how terrorist groups' strategic messaging will evolve in the 21st century. The growth of social media, like Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms, has given terrorist groups the opportunity to engage with audiences in ways never seen before. This final part of the book will address this looming challenge.

Most importantly, though, the final part of the book will provide recommendations for a comprehensive counter-messaging strategy to deal with the continuous threat of evolving terrorist propaganda. In doing so, Weaponized Words provides academics, practitioners, analysts, and everyday citizens with the knowledge needed to resist and fight back against the persuasive messages spread by terrorist organizations.

CHAPTER 8

THE COMING LANGUAGE WARS: TERRORIST PERSUASIVE STRATEGIES IN THE 21ST CENTURY

 

This chapter will discuss how the theories and perspectives covered throughout the book will emerge in terrorist communication in the coming years. Web 2.0 platforms, mobile communication technologies, and other innovations are constantly shifting terrorist groups' recruitment and radicalization efforts. However, the principles of persuasion and psychology that lead to certain beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors do not change. To show how technologically-capable groups can harness the power of new communication tools, this chapter will provide a detailed analysis of ISIS propaganda and the effects it's had. Given that ISIS is the first terrorist organization to fully exploit the affordances of communication technology in the 21st century, an analysis of the group will demonstrate the incredible persuasive power of terrorist groups that carefully craft messages that can be delivered to audiences via new and emerging mediums.

CHAPTER 9

FIGHTING BACK: PERSUASIVE STRATEGIES FOR COUNTERING VIOLENT EXTREMISM

 

In the last chapter of Weaponized Words, we turn to the final lessons learned from all the chapters that come before it. No longer should we implement communicative strategies with no basis for understanding whether and how they will work. To turn the tide on terrorist propaganda, this chapter will elaborate on recommendations made throughout the book to provide a comprehensive counter-messaging strategy that draws from tried-and-true communication theory. Although the conclusions reported in this chapter are by no means the final word on strategic persuasion geared towards counter-radicalization, it provides a starting point with a proven, evidence-based foundation. Through the recommendations provided here, analysts may be better-equipped to fight terrorist propaganda, academics may be better-suited to explore the psychology of radicalization, and everyday citizens may better understand why individuals turn to terrorism... and how we can stop them from doing so.

© 2018 by Kurt Braddock

All Rights Reserved

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