Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 24, 2015

Empowering positive narratives

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on July 24, 2015

Friday after lunch Michael Leiter, former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, recommended that a collection of social media firms could (ought to) establish a joint funding mechanism and otherwise collaborate to work with specific communities to provide training and other support to facilitate the communication of positive narratives.  I could not really tell how the other panelists or audience reacted.  There was no substantive follow-on.

Mr. Leiter suggested this would be an appropriate way for private sector technology firms to take some responsibility for their unintended role in online terrorist operations.

I could not tell if this concept was related to Secretary Johnson’s Thursday comments (see prior post) or is a parallel emergence. But this is the first glimmer of a bit of convergence.

It is interesting that there seems to be an assumption that more expansive online involvement would tend to marginalize the terrorist trolls and trawling.  I’m not sure, but I hope the assumption is true.


Since the four paragraphs above I have had a conversation with two people especially knowledgeable regarding online behavior within the Islamic community.  (For a variety of reasons, I will not name them.)  It is also their assessment that private efforts to encourage more American Muslims to use social media would serve to suppress the attraction and effectiveness of the terrorists.  One quoted some statistics that suggest an even greater youth-versus-other gap among American Muslims than is typical.  More Muslim presence in social media will, he claimed, serve to innately give rise to more positive narratives… and more effective counter-messaging.

Given my own experience of wide-spread non-listening online and regular digital yelling, I may still be a bit skeptical.  But I am very pleased to report these alternative judgments.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

July 24, 2015 @ 2:55 pm

The threshhold issue IMO is whether Social Media 2.0 is CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE?

Comment by Mike Mealer

July 30, 2015 @ 11:09 am

I’m still struggling with how to define a positive narrative or counter-narrative.
Is it a possessive or particular group consensus reinterpretation of a common religion, communicating a standard value system for conduct within a society or a religious community, a narrative revealing damage resulting from following an ideology, a happy bit of philosophy to anesthetize and shield communities from a developing fracture in civil society, or the counterpoint to a legitimate discourse that can polarize and define an enemy population?

Notwithstanding efforts to provide and distribute positive narratives on social media, the arbiters of what is important and proper remains in the entertainment media and entertainment driven fourth estate.

I’m wondering whether the real issue is a new literacy that develops understanding of the world through quantity, dramatics, and emotions rather than substance, reason and values.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 30, 2015 @ 5:54 pm

Mr. Mealer:

I share your struggle. A few responses.

There was, as I outlined, considerable specificity in terms of counter-messaging.

But those on-stage at Aspen advocating a “positive narrative” to counter ISIS did not articulate its content (in any substantive detail). I heard them inviting/challenging the audience to consider what one might be.

I perceived that some advocates of a “positive narrative” perceive it pre-exists and is ready to be deployed by better involving a larger number of Muslims online. Essentially, the argument seems to be, ISIS is operating in a normative space that is absent meaningful alternatives. Flood the zone with alternatives and the thugs will be marginalized.

On July 20 in Birmingham Prime Minister Cameron gave a speech that, among other things, advocated,”Empowering those moderate and reforming voices who speak for the vast majority of Muslims that want to reclaim their religion.” It was along the lines of generating a positive narrative. The speech has, of course, received both positive and negative reviews. See here and here.

I read you raising issues of authenticity, intellectual integrity, and instrumental or substantive motivation. When is a “positive narrative” a cynical technique? When is it a meaningful cultural touchstone?

For what it is worth, I perceive many societies are moving through a profound “post-modern” transition. One prominent aspect of this transition is considerable uncertainty, confusion, disagreement regarding sources of human meaning, social solidarity, and the role of non-materialist values (maybe this is similar to what you outline in your final paragraph). I perceive that for many individuals and groups, this context can be a fertile ground for violent extremism. To mitigate/minimize violent extremism we have to tackle issues of human meaning, social solidarity, and values. If so, this will probably require at least a generation, probably more, to address. And by the way, I don’t perceive positive movement, quite the contrary.

Comment by Mike Mealer

August 3, 2015 @ 2:08 pm

I agree we are in a post-modern transition. The effect of globalization coupled with instantaneous communication facilitated by the internet have changed human meaning, social solidarity and values.
The internet makes it easier to try to claim significance for yourself in a global community and also a means to join a global community for support or a odd kind of nurturing. Great tools for leading people. Values, perhaps, provide the glue for meaning and solidarity. We have to figure out a good glue. Maybe Velcro….the more hooks and loops that join us, the tighter the bond…:)

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