Communication with Cyber Terrorist
Direct messaging techniques use “counter narratives” to directly undermine and refute cyber terrorist
messages, denigrate messengers, or disturb those within violent extremists’ ranks. Such techniques
include refutation, denigration, condemnation, and agitation. These can be effective when targeting
mobilized audiences by creating confusion, distraction, or paranoia among extremists, as well as
preventing the further spread of extremist narratives by embroiling extremist communicators in
defensive argumentation. They can also prevent the ceding of ground to extremists by offering a
competing response and by reducing the incentive to spread extremist ideas by making them appear
less defensible or appealing. There are risks to such messages, however, which include the possibility
of inadvertently bringing attention to extremist narratives, and forcing cyber terrorist communicators to engage on the latter’s terms. Actually changing the minds of mobilized audiences through counter messaging is difficult, however. Adherents to extremist narratives who have acted upon them tend to be strongly
resistant to counter evidence or direct argumentation, according to narrative theory. Direct
confrontation often creates more resistance to change in individuals with deep-rooted beliefs, which
risks further entrenching extremist beliefs. This is especially the case for mobilized audiences consisting of hard-line extremists who have acted upon their beliefs, thus solidifying and further embedding these attitudes. In contrast, radicalized audiences those who agree with the violent extremist narrative but have not yet engaged in supporting activities may be shakier in their beliefs and possibly more open to counter argumentation. In such cases, direct messaging techniques can be employed to trigger enough uncertainty to deter them from mobilizing to violence.
Often, however, indirect messaging techniques may be more effective in changing the minds of radicalized audiences. Indirect techniques use “alternative narratives,” designed to distract from or supplant the adversary’s narrative without directly referencing it and to galvanize non-participatory audiences against it. These narratives work by indirectly destabilizing the credibility and appeal of extremist arguments, rather than directly challenging them through argumentation. Extremist narratives are oversimplified and reductionist, which serves as both a strength and a weakness. While extremist narratives are simple enough to be easily understood and spread, their simplicity makes them brittle and vulnerable to destabilization in the face of additional details, complexities, and alternate explanations that can inspire curiosity and uncertainty among the
adherents. By introducing complexity into extremist narratives, these techniques gradually deflate
their appeal by fracturing the underlying belief system, triggering doubt among radicalized audiences.
However, doubt and curiosity can only grow in the adherent when they aren’t feeling threatened,
according to narrative theory, implying that alternative narratives which aren’t confrontational, but
rather seek to add new information, could be most effective. Government-directed efforts to employ
indirect messaging are difficult, however. Such messaging requires a deep understanding of the culture, as well as credibility with audiences who may be deeply suspicious of the government. As a result, it may require partnering with local messengers and engaging in capacity building to train credible communicators. Such techniques also tend to require continuous, intensive efforts to build relationships, trust, and the necessary nuance to succeed. They are long-term strategies that seek to cause change through a gradual insertion of doubt, and as such, are less useful for crisis communication immediately following an event. Communications with cyber terrorist are most effective when integrated with complementary policy actions that reinforce and extend the messaging themes, but often matching words to actions can be nonviable. At times, the best course of action may even be “strategic silence” when a communication response could exacerbate matters.