Toxic Narratives: Findings and recommended action

by debate dehate

Right-wing extremists and right-wing populists are savvy and professional in their successful use of digital media. The research findings presented here offer an initial insight into the source of the effectiveness of the alternative right-wing media landscape – well-told, carefully placed and widely multiplied narratives. These narratives can be offered in numerous variants and a huge variety of guises. For a narrative to be successful, it must also be constantly adapted to new circumstances and details or change its coding. For narratives to remain relevant, they must not be fixed constructs, rather they should be constantly in flux. That’s why they can’t be automatically captured and categorized using keywords alone, rather the relevant articles must be very carefully sourced and examined. But it’s worth the effort. Narratives help not just in spreading ideologies; their investigating can lead to high-quality conclusions. Close analysis and deconstruction of narratives help to remove the superstructure and reveal the hateful core of the convictions that lie behind it.

Yet how serious are these findings for the broader public and the “center”? Doesn’t most of this, as mentioned previously, play out in right-wing echo chambers? Aren’t we merely discussing a marginal phenomenon here which is only relevant and interesting to a small section of the population and those investigating them?

Unfortunately not. The narratives help to not only emotionally anchor, confirm and reinforce certain world views within the alternative right-wing scene, they also aid argumentation and are conveyed by their supporters to the comment boxes of the media landscape throughout Germany, from the Tagesschau to the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Alternative right-wing narratives assist in the dissemination of their ideology far beyond their own circles. They help to consolidate existing (latent) racist prejudice in the population or keep conspiracy ideologies in circulation and thus normalize them, so that they are accepted as creditable alternative “theories” by broad sections of society.

Unfortunately not. The narratives help to not only emotionally anchor, confirm and reinforce certain world views within the alternative right-wing scene, they also aid argumentation and are conveyed by their supporters to the comment boxes of the media landscape throughout Germany, from the Tagesschau to the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Alternative right-wing narratives assist in the dissemination of their ideology far beyond their own circles. They help to consolidate existing (latent) racist prejudice in the population or keep conspiracy ideologies in circulation and thus normalize them, so that they are accepted as creditable alternative “theories” by broad sections of society.

Not everyone that picks up on such theories adheres to all facets of the antisemitic conception of a “global Jewish conspiracy” which is part of almost every conspiracy ideology. The fact that they perceptibly resonate in many narratives, or form their core, means that their dissemination leads to a normalization of these ideas and also provide an entry point for many who would otherwise reject the crude bluntness of conspiracy ideologies. Even a patently absurd narrative such as that of the “great replacement” is spoken about in the mainstream media over and over, keeping extreme right-wing views present. Without the transformation into a concise narrative, the idea that secret forces are working to eradicate the white population of Europe would certainly be much easier to recognize as a delusional conspiracy theory, which would remove the basis for discussing it. The spread and development of toxic narratives mirrors radicalization processes and conveys group-focused enmity far beyond the alternative right-wing scene.

The research and debate around hate in the internet has remained narrow for some years, largely restricted to statements that are potentially criminal. But toxic narratives cannot be forbidden or removed by legislation. Attempts such as the Network Enforcement Act and the call for operators to implement rigorous deletion policies miss the mark, because the narratives are rarely criminal – and can exert influence even in tempered form.

Pedagogical approaches for a democratic digital civil society

The answer must therefore be a digital democratic civil society. The traditional civil society must translate its activities to the digital space, joining forces with online activists. In this regard, prevention work online is becoming of increasing importance; youth in particular no longer distinguish between on- and offline and are being specifically targeted by alternative-right campaigns. Holistic prevention work should therefore consider the impact of narratives on young people and seek to counteract their radicalizing effects. Children and youth need trained contacts or mentors from within the youth and educational social-services milieu who can provide online-relationship assistance, who can evaluate and limit the impact of online hate, and who are familiar with the legal aspects of victim protection. However, many providers have only just begun the process of transferring proven pedagogical concepts to the digital environment – not only with regard to staffing, but also with regard to their own digital literacy and digital presence. Many tried-and-tested methods are ineffective online, and must accordingly be further developed or revised, for instance into a form of online outreach that takes narratives and their impact into account.

Peer-to-Peer-Ansätze, die sich in den letzten Jahrzehnten in der Jugendarbeit bewährt haben, sind auf das Web 2.0 bei entsprechender Grundlegung und Begleitung übertragbar, doch hängt ihr Erfolg maßgeblich von glaubwürdigen Absender_innen aus den Communities ab. Peer-to-Peer kann auch Hass in die Filterblase und in geschlossene Gruppen tragen bzw. verstärken; genauso schleusen sich Erzähler_innen rechter Narrative bei Jugendlichen ein: 30% der Jugendlichen und jungen Erwachsenen im Alter von 14 bis 35 Jahren berichten, dass sie schon mit Hass-Posts oder unseriösen Medien in sozialen Medien konfrontiert wurden, und zwar in ihrem eigenen Social Media-Freundesnetzwerk. Daher braucht es neben der Arbeit mit den Narrativen immer wieder auch Aufklärung über das Medium und seine spezifische Wirkung in der Debatte selbst. Dazu müssen sich Pädagog_innen zweifach qualifizieren – für die Vermittlung von Medienkompetenz in einem zeitgemäßen und viel konkreteren Sinne, nämlich einer »Web 2.0 Literacy«, und mit Blick auf das Erkennen und Decodieren der dort kursierenden Narrative. So eingebettet kann Peer-to-peer-Arbeit sehr wirkungsvoll sein, wie das Train-the-Trainer-Programm des Projektes debate// de:hate zeigt.

Peer-to-peer approaches, which have proven valuable in youth work over the last several decades, can be translated to a Web 2.0 setting with sufficient preparation and oversight. However, their success depends in large part on having credible speakers from within the target communities. Peer-to-peer activity can also promote or reinforce hate within filter bubbles and in closed groups; those seeking to influence youth with right-wing narratives often do so in precisely this way. Indeed, 30% of youth and young adults between the ages of 14 and 35 report that they have already encountered hate posts or other dubious media content within social-media networks, sometimes even within their own network of social-media friends. Therefore, in addition to the work with narratives, the role of the medium itself and its specific impact within the debate must also be clarified. To this end, educators and mentors must develop two types of skills, enabling them to impart media literacy in a contemporary and much more concrete sense than is currently the case – specifically, a “Web 2.0 literacy” – while also learning to recognize and decode the narratives circulating there. Peer-to-peer work can be very effective when embedded in this kind of context, as the debate//de:hate project’s “train-the-trainer program” has shown.

From counter-narrative to democratic narrative

Far-right extremists and right-wing populists’ great strength is their emotional authenticity. Their anti-democratic narratives are bolstered by their inner conviction and unconcealed hatred of minorities and political opponents.

Democracy is at a certain disadvantage here. It adheres to the fundamental principles of fair debate even as its opponents overstep these bounds. It allows the publication and discussion even of controversial content and strives for substance in debates. The alarmist narratives propagated by the alternative-right media landscape function like a background noise to which it is difficult to respond. This makes it all the more important to translate democracy’s strengths and values into powerful narratives. Our response to hate and aggressive agitation must be our own narratives: strong stories and images that – grounded in the reality of our own lives – champion values-oriented interactions and support human rights and an open society. In short, the alternative-right narratives must be answered from a social perspective, with creative political imagery. Indeed, the work with narratives and counter-narratives is becoming increasingly important for substantive engagement with ideologies of inequality and conspiracy narratives.

Moreover, in an era when the internet serves as an increasingly powerful and selective medium for shaping opinions, greater efforts are needed to bring all citizens to a point of self-confident media literacy. In this sense, media literacy means much more than just handling personal data and passwords carefully. It is just as important to be able to recognize and dissolve narratives, question and review sources, and understand and break through echo chambers. This media education must also help people navigate the contentious culture of debate, the “soul of democracy” – while also being aware of borders where discourse crosses into agitation and a calcified hostility. Engagement with the mechanisms of digital opinion formation will form the cornerstone for a stronger digital culture of democratic debate

Narratives – accounts of the world that link actions and events into meaningful contexts – help us order, explain and describe the world, no matter what our perspective. These accounts function like other stories, evoking emotions and providing us with motivations. But what if this form of narrative evokes fear, rejection or even hate?

Right-wing extremists and right-wing populists use digital media in the most up-to-date ways possible, and with considerable success. The functioning of social networks, where emotionally charged stories can turn quickly into viral hits, accommodates their narratives. Research, public debate and counter-reactions have to date focused primarily on the issues of fake news and criminally prosecutable content. However, the narratives cannot be legally prohibited or eliminated, because they are seldom punishable by law –- yet they have an impact even when couched in a moderate tone.

In order to address toxic narratives effectively, we need our own powerful accounts of the world – in short, democracy narratives. We must learn not only to shape democracy and diversity, but also to tell their stories.


How should I respond to toxic narratives?

# Question narratives

The fact that a story sounds convincing and is well told doesn’t make it true. A substantive discussion at the factual level can make people think twice – especially those who are simply reading along, without joining in. However, this can be time-consuming if you’re not already immersed in the issue. A simpler first step is to ask about sources and proof, while also noting that there are other opinions on the issue and pointing to opposing positions.

# Show your own attitude

Not every narrative is backed by a cohesive ideology; indeed, they are built primarily around subjective impressions. Unlike the far-right slogans or right-wing populist ideologies they are associated with, narratives aren’t fundamentally societally proscribed – rather, they generally fall into the category of the “speakable.” For this reason, they’re contradicted less often.

Nevertheless, it is essential to openly reject and contradict toxic narratives. Any answer is better than letting alternative-right narratives stand without comment. It is helpful to respond with an attitude that appeals fundamentally to democratic values. The derogatory or racist core of a statement should also be labeled for what it is.

# Decode narratives

When entering into discussions, it can be helpful to start by addressing a narrative’s structure. What line of reasoning does it pursue? What explanatory patterns are being employed, and what relationships manufactured? What images are used, with what key words? It can also be useful to point to generalizations or aspects taken out of context.

# Don’t get pushed into a corner

Experience shows that anyone speaking out against specific narratives will run into resistance. They will likely need to explain themselves, providing their own proofs and identifying their own sources. However, if you do want to respond to narratives, don’t let yourself be pushed onto the defensive, or be distracted from the original topic. Instead, simply confidently demand answers to your own points of criticism.

# Make sure you have each other’s backs

The goal of narratives is to influence other people’s interpretations and set the thematic agenda.

Very frequently, a speaker will assert that he or she represents the (pseudo) majority. People venturing into such a discussion shouldn’t have to do so alone. In the course of your argument, try to support and encourage others, and endorse the statements you agree with.

It is critical to break through the logic in which the loudest, most aggressive statements are those that are most widely heard. Don’t expect that you’ll convince committed far-right extremists or right-wing populists. Always remember that in the context of narratives, you’re primarily speaking to those who are simply reading along without engaging, and who might otherwise go along with the narratives.

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