Counternarratives or counternarrative campaigns have become a staple of strategies to counter – through communication – threats to the national security and democracy, from violent extremism and terrorism, disinformation and foreign influence, to hate crimes and bias-motivated incidents.

While present-day counternarratives evolved as a response to some of the externalities or unintended consequences of widespread internet use and were meant to compensate imbalances created by technological advances and the exploitation of new platform affordances, they quickly became plagued with the same problems affecting the entire information ecosystem. These problems include ethical issues surrounding audience profiling, privacy concerns in relation to tracking and micro-targeting of at-risk individuals, overreliance on algorithms and automated tools to achieve scale. The above are just a fraction of the issues that the field has yet to grapple with in a meaningful way.

The main objective of our report is to challenge the dominant “policy narrative” of counternarratives, focusing on the context of the European Union. We identify missing dimensions and opportunities for enhancing strategic communication efforts by civil society in during the current confidence crisis in the digital ecosystem and in democratic institutions. These include directly engaging with broader social changes to address the issues of concern, more intentional community participation and dialogue, collaboration across disciplines and expertise silos to develop new models and formats of communication campaigns, and a more critical and proactive engagement with the information infrastructure, rules, and platform affordances.

The report seeks to start a wider stakeholder discussion on addressing illegal and harmful online content associated with anti-democratic efforts in the EU, informing the EU-level policies, as well as national policies of the EU countries, with a likely spillover effect to EU candidate or future candidate countries.

We propose future directions for the required policy change that would boost our ability to defend and build resilience against threats that democratic societies are facing from terrorists, authoritarians, populists at home or abroad who are weaponising the internet and exploiting audience vulnerabilities.

These proposed changes focus on reframing of the overall mission and are presented around four challenges that strategic communication can help address.

We formulate four challenges for strategic communication:

  • Supporting long term substantive policy reforms and social change processes, explaining costs and benefits of proposed solutions and advantages of messy problem solving in democratic societies, contrasting them to quick fixes and shortcuts promised by populists and propagandists, to audiences that are resistant to truth, facts, evidence and are sceptical of scientific methods.
  • Addressing the appeal and resonance of problematic, dangerous narratives, in addition to engaging with their producers, their messages, and their ideologies, through long term multi-level campaigns with audience participation to support community building forces.
  • Supporting new models of collaboration, linking existing strategic communication initiatives and efforts to build and sustain broader alliances that expand boundaries and definitions of communication campaigns.
  • Explaining benefits, challenges of and limits to technological solutions for detecting, removing content, and suppressing its circulation, as well as banning users and networks at scale, and about risks related to privacy, surveillance, the use of AI and automatic filtering to both public and decision-makers.