Weaponized Words: The Strategic Role Of Persuasion In Violent Radicalization And Counter-Radicalization

Author: Kurt Braddock
Publisher: Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. 302p.
Reviewer: Clark McCauley | February 2021

This book is interesting, both for what it does and what it does not do.

What it does is review psychological theory and research relevant to understanding and contesting the success of terrorist persuasion, both jihadist and right-wing. The book is well-written, with an engaging and personal style that can draw a wide readership.

Chapter 1 is a broad-brush review of theories of radicalization. Braddock accepts the view that radicalization of opinion must be distinguished from radicalization of action. “Radicalization is characterized by increased commitment to beliefs and attitudes consistent with an extremist ideology, but not necessarily a parallel commitment to engage in violence on behalf of that ideology.”

His three examples of radicalization feature violent action, which in each case is attributed to radicalization of opinion. Jihad Jane was “seduced by jihadist ideology,” Dylan Roof embraced “white supremacist beliefs and attitudes,” the Tsarnaev brothers were inspired by “adoption of jihadi ideology.” Braddock does not attempt to explain why these three cases moved to violent action while millions who share their beliefs did not.

Chapter 2 reviews past and current counter-radicalization efforts. These efforts include 1) teaching broad audiences about the dangers of violent extremism and how to avoid it; 2) teaching how to identify radicalizing individuals and how to report them for risk assessment and counseling; 3) blocking extremist content from the internet, especially social media; and 4) internet-based messaging that specifically challenges and contradicts extremist content.

An important point raised here is that every kind of teaching and messaging depends on trust in the source of communication—usually a government agency or a government supported NGO. This is a continuing problem for counter-radicalization aimed at communities or populations with low trust in government. For example, trust in government is likely to be low among the third of US and UK Muslims who believe that the war on terrorism is a war on Islam. The chapter ends with a plea for more attention to scientific theories of persuasion in designing counter-radicalization programs.

Chapter 3 examines extremist narratives and counter-narratives. The opening example is Timothy McVeigh, whose bombing of a government building in Oklahoma City was inspired by a novel—The Turner Diaries. Braddock reviews evidence of the persuasive power of narratives, which can be summarized as showing that humans find it particularly easy to remember and learn from stories—think of Jesus teaching in parables.

A narrative is basically a story in which one or more characters act and react over time. Braddock advocates analyzing extremist narratives in terms of common themes such as “weapons use” and meta-themes such as “killing undesirables.” Counter-narratives should then be designed to contradict these themes. This chapter ends with recommendations for constructing and disseminating counter-narratives; the recommendations tend to be abstract and readers may wish for more specific examples.

Chapter 4 reviews communications research demonstrating the power of attitudinal inoculation: exposing an audience to a weak form of an argument and a strong counter-argument, leaving the audience more resistant to the countered argument in the future. One issue likely to arise in applying inoculation theory for counter-radicalization is that target audiences—those who believe that the war on terrorism is a war on Islam, or those who believe that government is replacing the white race with immigrants — have likely already been exposed to a strong argument before being reached with an inoculation.

Chapter 5 describes the theory of reasoned action (TRA) in relation to radicalization and counter-radicalization. This theory points to three sources of intention to act. First is an individual’s own attitude toward the action, second is the individual’s perception of the attitudes of others the individual cares about (social norms), and third is the individual’s perception of control—ability to perform the act. TRA is a rational-choice theory of intention as the proximation of action: what are the rewards and costs of an action, what’s the expected value of this action? Readers with experience of the personal histories of individuals who have turned to terrorism may doubt how often it is that someone undertakes the risks of political violence—or even political activism–on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis.

Chapter 6 turns to consideration of the role of emotions in radicalization and counter-radicalization. The chapter begins with a description of an ISIS propaganda film. “Blood for Blood was clearly produced to make audiences feel anger about the victimization of Muslims and pride in Muslim children for choosing to fight back against their attackers.” The first thing to notice here is that images and music can be weaponized as well as words. It is unsettling that the examples of radicalization videos seem more sophisticated and more powerful than the suggestions and examples for counter-radicalization videos.

The chapter moves on to a review of psychological research on emotions, including anger, fear, disgust, guilt, sadness, and pride. These emotions are identified at work in extremist videos, and Braddock offers recommendations for putting the same emotions to work in counter-radicalization videos. His most detailed example is a video designed to elicit pride in opposing terrorism. A Middle Eastern town is taken over by terrorists; townspeople link arms to surround the terrorists. The ending does not show how this tactic worked against machine guns.

Chapter 7 points to three future challenges in online disinformation. States and extremist groups can circulate lies on the internet. They can do this using faked videos, faked pictures, and faked audio (“deepfakes”). And extremist rhetoric from public figures can inspire lone-actor terrorist attacks that are practically impossible to predict (“stochastic terrorism”).

Chapter 8 points to three possible directions for improving counter-radicalization: immersive virtual environments, including games; entertainments with educational and moral lessons embedded in the story lines, and redirecting searches for radical material to counter-radicalization content.

To sum up, the book succeeds in framing radicalization and counter-radicalization as communication problems, and does a fluent job of representing psychological research that should be relevant to understanding these problems. What the book does not do is suggest how persuasion of opinion might be different from persuasion to action.

Most generally, this book is about radicalization and how to prevent it. Braddock does not attempt to deal with issues of deradicalization. For example, how do we counter the radicalization of at least one third of Muslims who believe that the war on terrorism is a war on Islam? How do we counter the radicalization of about a quarter of US and UK adults who believe that the government is deliberately hiding the truth about how many immigrants are in their country? These are issues for another book.

Clark McCauley is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Bryn Mawr College

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