Key findings

Mass media persuasion by itself rarely, if ever, works at changing people’s foundational beliefs or values – but it can change their behaviour.

► Research shows that mass media alone has no measurable effect on belief change. Trying to change supporters or members of groups like ISIS or Al Qaeda’s beliefs or values via mass media tools alone is not likely to work.

► Mass media can change behaviour by changing perceptions of social norms. When people perceive that their behaviours are out of step with the norms of their group they adjust to the norms. Social norm interventions through mass media can reduce willingness to join terrorist groups like ISIS or Al Qaida.

► Mass persuasion can increase the commitment to already held beliefs. Research shows that mass media which “preaches to the choir” can increase action orientation. ISIS propaganda can inspire passive supporters into action. Conversely, CVE mass media efforts can inspire those with anti-ISIS sentiments to increase their activism.

If belief change is the goal, such as in deradicalisation, person-to-person interaction is required, though mass media can augment efforts.

► Credible messengers dialoguing with someone can make that person change political sides, convert religions, or join/leave an extremist group. Deradicalisation requires person-to-person dialogue, not mass media.

► Credible messengers have two perceived qualities: authority and benevolence. The target of the belief-change message has to think that the messenger knows more about the subject than they do (authority) and that the messenger’s incentives are aligned with the target’s best-interests (benevolence). These are the qualities that people who seek to deradicalise ISIS members must be perceived as possessing.

► People change core beliefs because they want to leave their current group for another group. Belief change is the cost of entry to the other group. In order to deradicalise someone you have to offer them an alternative group which appeals to them. The credible messenger should be a member of that group.

Key policy implications

Strategic communications policies for P/CVE purposes should be informed by research demonstrating when mass media versus person-to-person interaction are most effective. The findings from this policy brief highlight some important guidelines to this effect:

Mass media is ineffective at belief change but useful for behaviour change.

► Summary information, such as results from opinion polls, can be used to alter perceptions of social norms. This information must come from sources that the targets deem as legitimate and be communicated to them on platforms that they trust. For instance, polls from advocacy groups that the target population distrusts, disseminated in mainstream media (presumably also distrusted by target groups) will not be very effective. What sources and platforms are considered trustworthy is context-dependent and local subject matter experts should be consulted.

► Highly influential people among the target group, known as social referents, can be effective means by which to shape social norms. Among extremists these are often peer-group members who can be either part of an online or offline community. Social network analysis can be used to help identify these influential individuals.

► Three elements are particularly important for norm interventions to affect behaviour. Firstly, the target should identify with the source of the norm intervention; this usually means the target sees themselves as part of the referent group from which the norm intervention is being deployed. Secondly, the norms should be believable opinions or behaviours of the group. For instance, interventions that try to convince target group members that their referent group believes in homosexual or women’s rights in a culture where that is unlikely to be the case will not be effective. Thirdly, new norms should not deviate too far from the target group’s actual beliefs. For instance, if salafi-jihadi attitudes are held by a target group, it is more effective to push for norms that disagree with the violence associated with these beliefs rather than trying to change the overall political belief system into something aligned with liberal democracy.

This policy brief was originally published on the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation’s website.