Extremist use of information and communications technology (ICT) has proliferated, creating a unique security predicament for the companies who provide ICT products and services internationally. As the role of ICT products in the 2015 Paris and 2016 Brussels attacks illustrates, ICT tools play an increasingly important role in the recruitment, communication, and fundraising capacities of extremist organizations. In response, ICT providers are under increasing pressure to curtail the effects of extremist Internet use, although there are no industry norms nor laws to govern how ICT companies should accomplish this goal.
Thus far, ICT companies have responded to extremist use of their products and services in a variety of ways: (1) they have shared information with governments to help law enforcement prevent attacks and prosecute criminals, (2) they have set up internal monitoring services to remove radical content, and (3) they have engaged in online counter-narrative campaigns that attempt to counteract the radical propaganda circulated by extremist organizations. This report focuses on the use of online counter-narrative programs as a tool to thwart extremist ability to use ICT products to reach and recruit target audiences.
Counter-narrative programs directly challenge extremist messages and attempt to discredit them, pointing out logical fallacies and factual incorrectness—using tools such as humor or an appeal to higher values. Online counter-narrative programs are growing increasingly popular as a counter-terrorism tool employed by governments, nonprofits, and even ICT companies—a trend which is particularly curious considering that the efficacy of counter-narrative programs remains to be proven. In our research, we identified a variety of counter-narrative programs that receive funding from ICT companies. However, none of the programs we researched were able to conclusively demonstrate effectiveness in redirecting potential extremists from radicalization.
It is possible that online counter-narrative programs appear to be unsuccessful because they are a relatively new solution to the problem of extremist ICT use. It is also true that it is hard to prove why something does not happen. However, research into similar initiatives focused on anti-human trafficking, anti-piracy, and anti-gang programs suggest the limited potential of counter-narrative campaigns alone in achieving their goals.
Therefore, we recommend that ICT companies make evaluation of online counter-narrative programs a priority before investing in them further. If counter-narratives are to be an effective means with which to combat extremism, their success must be demonstrated and best practices must be determined.
What Are “Counter-Narrative” Programs?
The Institute for Strategic Dialogue’s Counter Extremism Project notes that “counter-narratives” has lacked a specific definition, instead describing a range of projects. They, instead, use the term “counter-messaging spectrum” and divide counter-messaging activities into three major categories: government strategic communications, alternative narratives, and counter-narratives. Table 1 illustrates these three categories of counter-messaging.
Table 1: Counter-Messaging Categories
|Government strategic communications||Communications meant to educate the public about what government is doing—this can include public awareness efforts.||Correct misinformation, raise awareness, build relationships.||Government|
|Alternative narratives||Countering extremist narratives through use of positive language rather than conflict-based language||Reframe extremist characterization of society focusing on positive values such as freedom and democracy.||Civil society and government|
|Counter-narratives||Directly challenging and discrediting extremist messages, framing, stories, and values.||Challenging extremist arguments and characterizations of society using tools such as facts, logic, humor.||Civil society|
Counter-narrative programs are often a mixture of strategies, most commonly of alternative and counter-narratives. While government and civil society organizations have traditionally undertaken counter-messaging projects, the centrality of ICT products to extremist recruitment has led ICT companies to begin to engage in counter-narrative projects as well. This choice is often made by companies concerned about facilitating extremist use of products, but is often encouraged by government.
Counter-narrative programs are popular with ICT companies due to their proactive, rather than reactive nature, and the unique positioning of ICT companies as a facilitator of information. For instance, reactive practices meant to limit extremist content circulating on ICT products and services—such as sharing data with governments and internal monitoring—can anger consumers because of the perception that companies are violating users’ civil rights. Meanwhile, counter-narrative programs are seen as a positive attempt to prevent radical content and harmful behavior from coming to fruition in the first place—allowing companies to put proactive policies in place.
Additionally, industry-led counter-narrative programs are attractive because they are potentially more successful than those led by governments. Individuals inclined toward extremism often already have poor relationships with their governments due to the structural policies that perpetuate their desperation. For this reason, governments are not always the best arbiters of counter-narrative programs, creating space for ICT companies to spread counter-narrative content. Further yet, many ICT companies are multinational in nature with millions of users worldwide, giving ICT companies a far wider reach than governments.
Evaluating Existing Counter-Narrative Programs
Programs such as the Against Violent Extremism network, Peer 2 Peer, The One2One Program, and the Online Civil Courage Initiative all exemplify the trend of ICT companies supporting counter-narrative programs. These programs all succeed in creating counter-narrative content and the Against Violent Extremism and One2One Program succeed in identifying and engaging with at-risk youth through ICT products. However, two of these programs—Peer 2 Peer and the Online Civil Courage Initiative—fail to demonstrate that their content even reaches the right audience, a common issue among counter-narrative programs. Furthermore, none of these four campaigns can effectively tie their initiatives to metrics that prove a reduction in extremist behavior among program participants.
Reaching a Target Audience
One common problem that hampers the ability of counter-narrative programs to demonstrate success is that some programs are unable to prove that they reach the appropriate audience. For counter-narrative programs to work, they must be able to engage those most at-risk for extremist behavior and convince these individuals to change their behavior. Simply sharing counter-narrative content with the general public will not work to reduce extremism. Peer 2 Peer and the Online Civil Courage Initiative are two examples of campaigns that fail to clearly make the connection between their content and an audience of vulnerable youth.
The Peer 2 Peer: Challenging Extremism program, launched by EdVenture Partners, is an initiative that uses ICT products to launch grassroots counter-narrative programs. Each year, Peer 2 Peer supports teams of university students around the world that develop and execute social media strategies aimed at dissuading people from extremism. For example, in 2015 the Turku School of Economics in Finland created the project “Choose Your Future.” Students created an application in collaboration with the ICT company Funzi. The application is intended for asylum seekers in the Turku region and includes information to help better integrate asylum seekers into the community as a means of dissuading them from extremism. The application also serves to address any misconceptions or disinformation about refugees in order to facilitate stronger community ties. Although the “Choose Your Future” application was designed for use in a region with many asylum seekers, it is unclear whether or not actual asylum seekers actually used the application.
Another example of a Peer 2 Peer campaign that utilized ICT products was called “Let’s Talk Jihad.” This program was largely run via Facebook and received ample attention, grabbing 5,000 likes within a month and over 70,000 people interacting with their content. While Peer 2 Peer’s efforts are laudable due to its attempts to engage youth and encourage societal inclusion, the program materials provide no evidence to show that its campaigns actually reach the intended audience. Additionally, while the “Let’s Talk Jihad” campaign seems to have earned a considerable following, Peer 2 Peer has not demonstrated that this following is actually engaging vulnerable youth.
Facebook’s Online Civil Courage Initiative has a similar problem. The Online Civil Courage Initiative supports grassroots elements that recommends individuals share stories about countering hate speech as well as promoting interactions with moderators on the Initiative’s Facebook page. The Initiative’s Facebook page has a pinned post that prompts Facebook users to share a story or idea that supports the Initiative’s goal of combatting online extremism and hate speech. Users are encouraged to share these stories with the hashtag #civilcourage to give a sense of empowerment and prompt further action, perhaps even working to convince extremist-sympathizing individuals to move away from extremist behavior. However, as in the case of Peer 2 Peer, the Initiative offers no proof that the Online Civil Courage Initiative actually reaches individuals leaning toward extremism. Therefore, while programs such as Peer 2 Peer and the Online Civil Courage Initiative may create counter-narrative content, it is impossible to assess whether they are engaging in a strategy that engages their target demographics.
Bridging Engagement and Changes in Behavior
Even counter-narrative programs that successfully reach their target audience still struggle to demonstrate their success at altering the behavior of would-be extremists. Most counter-narrative programs fail to demonstrate a direct tie between program engagement and changes in behavior. Without this connection, it is difficult to assert that counter-narrative programs are actually able to achieve their goals. For example, the Against Violent Extremism (AVE) network and One2One programs connect former extremists with vulnerable youth and produce metrics on engagement, but both programs fail to offer evidence that their programs result in a reduction in or avoidance of extremist behavior.
The Against Violent Extremism network counters extremism by targeting at-risk youth through its grassroots network of former extremists and survivors of violence, who are referred to as “formers and survivors.” Founded at the Summit Against Violent Extremism in 2011, AVE is funded by Jigsaw (formerly Google Ideas) and the Gen Next Foundation. It is managed by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. AVE is the largest existing network of former extremists and victims of extremism with 350 “formers” and 163 “survivors.” These participants create counter-narrative content. Leveraging first-hand lessons and experiences through its website and YouTube channel, “formers and survivors” are empowered to work together through the AVE network by utilizing technology to connect to other people, exchange in a dialogue, disseminate ideas, and work against any forms of violent extremism. AVE has launched 76 counter-narrative projects and made 2,566 connections through the promotion of its growing network.
The One2One Program also emphasizes engagement between former extremists and at-risk youth to dissuade individuals from extremist behavior. The One2One program is sponsored in part by Facebook and Twitter and is also run by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. Since Facebook is a popular social media platform for youth all over the world, it is a well-placed tool for the One2One program to target vulnerable, extremist-leaning youth. The One2One Program uses Facebook’s Graph Search to identify candidates for its programs based on their demographic profiles and pages that users have “liked.” Once an individual has been identified as a potential extremist sympathizer, a former extremist with the One2One Program messages the individual via Facebook Messenger. One2One reports that 60 percent of conversations initiated between former extremists and vulnerable audiences resulted in the exchange of more than five messages, which the program considers successful sustained engagement. One2One also found that several variables affect engagement rates, namely tone and anonymity. Sustained engagement rates were higher in situations where the former extremists revealed their true identities, shared anecdotes about their experiences with violence, and used a more casual tone than in situations where former extremists communicated anonymously and utilized antagonistic or aggressive tones.
While AVE and One2One are able to measure engagement with their respective campaigns, engagement alone does not necessarily result in a change in behavior. In other words, just because a vulnerable youth successfully communicates with a former extremist who encourages them to choose a different path, this does not mean that the youth in question will actually decide to move away from extremism. Counter-narrative programs such as AVE and One2One have a target demographic and profile of what they deem to be vulnerable youth; however, aggregated and generalized profiles of potential victims to radicalization are largely viewed as ineffective. 
The Limitations of Standalone Programs
As discussed above, counter-narrative programs have yet to prove themselves as successful tools with which to reduce extremist behavior. The lack of evaluation surrounding counter-narrative programs may be due to the relative infancy of such types of programs and also due to the nature of programs themselves. Counter-narrative programs attempt to encourage individuals not to engage in a particular behavior and it can be difficult to assess the inaction that counter-narratives encourage.
Yet in spite of the inherent difficulties of assessing the efficacy of counter-narrative programs, evaluation of similar campaigns such as anti-human trafficking, anti-piracy initiatives, and anti-gang programs suggest that campaigns alone may not be successful in achieving their goals. Anti-human trafficking and anti-piracy campaigns have not yielded lower human trafficking or piracy rates. Meanwhile, anti-gang campaigns, when combined with comprehensive policy reforms and community engagement, are successful in reducing gang activity—however, successful anti-gang programs are successful because they are embedded in broader societal structures. Given this precedent and the similarity of anti-trafficking and anti-piracy campaigns to that of counter-narrative campaigns, history may suggest that counter-narrative campaigns are simply ineffective as standalone counter-terrorism tools. Counter-narrative campaigns may by their nature be limited in what they can deliver because that they do not effectively address or solve deeper structural issues that act as factors encouraging involvement with extremist activity. In essence, our evidence shows that counter-narratives may be inadequate at thwarting extremist use of ICT for recruitment.
Anti-Human Trafficking Programs
Anti-trafficking campaigns have largely been deemed ineffectual due to the difficulty of addressing deeper structural issues surrounding human trafficking. Efforts at combatting human-trafficking have generally focused on prosecution of traffickers and protection of trafficking victims through measures such the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000. Criticism surrounding anti-trafficking efforts focus on the lack of precision and methodological transparency in existing human-trafficking statistics as well as the failure of most initiatives in addressing broader issues.
Similar to counter-narrative campaigns, measuring the efficacy of anti-trafficking initiatives is difficult due to the concealed nature of human-trafficking. Many victims of human-trafficking are reluctant to come forward due to fear of prosecution and lack of protection as most are also illegal migrants. A direct consequence of failures in victim identification are the various competing statistics surrounding human-trafficking ranging from as low as 14,500 people to as high as 100,000 people being trafficked into the US every year.
Experts criticize information campaigns aimed at reducing demand for these sexual services or warning potentially vulnerable victims for failing to address structural factors underlying human trafficking, such as political instability and poverty. It is evident from anti-trafficking initiatives that with complicated and multi-faceted issues such as human-trafficking, prevention campaigns are unlikely to have much impact unless they address the deeper problems that directly contribute to human-trafficking.
Digital piracy, or the illegal copying of intellectual property (IP), is a problem that has plagued IP holders for nearly three decades. Well-known anti-piracy campaigns generally attempt to make the potential pirate feel guilty about illegal downloads, often arguing that piracy reduces the profits of hard-working artists. Campaigns can be traced back to the 1980s with the British “Home Taping is Killing Music” campaign, with similar campaigns extending into the present. The movie industry has tried “we’re looking over your shoulder” and “you can click, but you can’t hide” initiatives to suggest to illegal downloaders that they can be caught and brought to justice. Campaigns have also moved into schools, attempting to instill a respect for copyright in youth.
Like anti-extremist counter-narrative campaigns, it is difficult to appropriately assess the impact of individual anti-piracy programs. However, statistics on the rise of global piracy rates suggest that the success of anti-piracy campaigns are limited at best. Between 2009 and 2010, the number of Danish citizens who reported that they had the ability to find and illegally download music and movies from the Internet rose by three percent. Additionally, a recent survey conducted in the United States suggested that the percentage of Americans able and willing to download music illegally rose 18 percent in one year alone. Perhaps most glaringly, over 70 percent of Internet users believe that there is nothing wrong with Internet piracy, suggesting that the messages of anti-piracy campaigns are ineffective or not reaching the majority of online users. Most agree that the reduction of online piracy has been the result of accessible and affordable streaming services, such as Spotify.
Toward Comprehensive Intervention: Anti-Gang Programs
Anti-gang campaigns may be a helpful model for counter-narrative campaigns moving forward. The success of anti-gang programs has been measured in a variety of ways. In particular, it appears that successful campaigns are longer in nature, use a multi-faceted approach, combine digital and non-digital resources, and draw on the participation of law enforcement and the community. In other words, they involve more than just counter-narrative programs.
As in the case of anti-trafficking and anti-piracy campaigns, standalone anti-gang campaigns appear to be ineffectual. For example, the End Gang Life campaign in British Columbia has created posters, radio ads, booklets, and videos as part of a “comprehensive gang education, prevention, and awareness initiative.” The only metrics of success the campaign provides is that the average age of victims of gang-related homicides and attempted homicides has steadily declined from 2008 to 2015—which, is not really a measure of success. Moreover, there is no way to prove that the End Gang Life media campaign has caused an increase or decrease in the average life of a victim due to gang violence. Researchers have found that to successfully prevent youth from joining gangs, campaigns must use a more multi-dimensional approach; communities must strengthen families and schools, improve supervision, train teachers and parents to manage disruptive youth, and teach students interpersonal skills.
The longevity and multi-dimensional approach of some anti-gang counter-narratives can provide helpful lessons for using counter-narrative programs to combat extremist use of ICT. Beginning in the 1980s, the federal government and academic community began to dedicate significant resources and time into developing an effective way to prevent and suppress gang activity. Under the direction and expertise of Irving Spergel, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Diplomacy Prevention adopted the Spergel Model of Gang Intervention and Suppression (later renamed the Office of Juvenile Justice Diplomacy Prevention Comprehensive Gang Model). The model was initially tested in the Little Village of Chicago in 1993 and was subsequently implemented in five additional cities. The model acknowledges that gang members are not all the same and, therefore, looks for solutions that can address their different problems. The model has five strategies: community mobilization, provision of opportunities, social intervention, suppression, and organizational change and development. These strategies use law enforcement, education systems, faith-based organizations, street outreach workers, grassroots organizations, and citizens in surrounding communities. It illustrates the effectiveness of combining services and individual contact in reducing violent arrests.
Unlike anti-piracy, anti-human trafficking, and counter-narrative campaigns, certain anti-gang initiatives, such as the one proposed by Spergel, may prove to be helpful for how to create and measure the success of counter-narrative campaigns. Generally, standalone programs have significantly less effect creating change.
Recommendation: Toward Better Evaluation
The lessons from anti-trafficking, anti-piracy, and anti-gang campaigns indicate that standalone counter-narrative campaigns are largely ineffectual. Therefore, before investing heavily in the creation of new counter-narrative campaigns, we recommend that ICT companies invest in developing better evaluation techniques of existing counter-narrative programs. In order to validate the efficacy and success of counter-narrative campaigns in reducing online recruitment, further longitudinal studies must be conducted. ICT companies are well suited to invest in measurement tools to aid in improving data on the actual effect and impact of counter-narrative programs. Furthermore, they have the advantage of utilizing existing tools to aid in this initiative of improving data collection.
Short-term Measures of Efficacy
Short-term measures of efficacy may include but are not limited to user demographics, user engagement, user geography, user behavior, and media coverage. ICT companies can use their expertise in these areas to first determine the efficacy, if any, of counter-narrative programs. Looking at data such as clicks and views to determine the reach of counter-narrative campaigns and how much users interacted with specific material either through time spent on a website or the number of comments or discussion left is one short-term measure of success through engagement. These tools allow for short-term measurement of impact and allow for access to actionable data to improve campaigns in targeting and influencing a specific demographic through increased understanding of user behavior. There are two recent examples of this type of short term measurement: Google’s “Redirect Method” and a recent study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
Google’s Jigsaw has launched the “Redirect Method,” a program meant to dissuade prospective extremists through counter-narrative strategies. The Redirect Program uses advertising and other algorithms to place advertising alongside any search results that Google has found people interested in ISIS commonly are seeking. It then curates existing content to create counter-narratives, such as materials that show that ISIS’s claims are false, religious leaders and other influential figures denouncing ISIS, and testimonials from former extremists. In a pilot project, Google found that its anti-ISIS YouTube channels were quite successful. Over two months, over 300,000 people viewed them staying on the channels longer than normal viewing patterns. They also found that searchers clicked on the counter-narrative content three or four times more than a normal ad campaign.
The Institute for Strategic Dialogue has conducted a year-long study into the efficacy of counter-narrative programs that is similar in nature to the Redirect Method’s measurement of engagement. The study evaluated three different counter-narrative programs in order to understand what counter-narrative strategies were more effective. They discovered that the counter-narrative videos that were the central element of the study received over 378,000 videos views. They were also liked, shared, retweeted, and commented on over 20,000 times—with more than 480 comments being written. Hearteningly, they also found considerable evidence that viewers were thoughtfully engaging with the content—including debating issues such as the role of gender in Islam and constructive exchanges around neo-Nazi issues. Less hearteningly, they received only eight direct requests from individuals who wanted to “get away from the hate.”
The ability to measure engagement is a step forward for our understanding of the impact of counter-narrative campaigns. In addition, it is worth mentioning that Google’s Redirect Method’s use of existing material—including that produced by trusted figures—rather than creating materials, most closely approximates the embeddedness of the anti-gang programs in the community. However, there is no way to know if this approach has convinced any potential recruits to turn away from ISIS. Because of this, such short-term measures alone are not sufficient in validating the efficacy of counter-narrative programs. As outlined above, simply measuring user engagement with content does not illustrate that the target demographic has been reached or that potential extremists have been redirected.
Long-term Measures of Efficacy
Long-term metrics move beyond tracking individual interactions with counter-narrative programs to more strategic measures of concrete success. Measures of concrete success should focus on whether the objective of counter-narrative campaigns has been achieved in a sustained way—this not only includes whether a target audience has been reached, but also that there has been a behavioral change. Indicators of sustained long-term impact can be shown through a drop in online support for extremist ideas and a drop in the number of people supporting violent extremist organizations. At the same time, due to the difficulty in establishing a direct connection between counter-narrative campaigns and a decrease in recruits for organizations such as ISIS, these long-term measures must be supplemented with longitudinal studies.
Longitudinal studies tracking shifts in discourse over an extended period of time are necessary to validate the long-term success of counter-narrative campaigns. There is no way to prove a direct connection to success in reducing the number of extremist sympathizers and recruits as a result of counter-narrative campaigns due to the counterfactual nature of the situation as well as the numerous uncontrolled variables that cannot be isolated. However, longitudinal studies that track the same audience over a sustained period of time may better illuminate the impacts of counter-narrative campaigns. For instance, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue’s study that examined comments and tweets to understand the types of conversations around counter-narrative programs is an excellent starting point for digging deeper into the data available to ICT companies in order to understand who is accessing the material and the type of impact that access may have on individuals.
ICT companies are in a position to profile, track, and understand user behavior in a way that other actors are not. Google Analytics, in particular, can greatly assist in validating counter-narrative campaigns as it is already involved in shorter-terms measures of counter-narrative campaigns success online. Both before and instead of investing in counter-narrative campaigns, ICT companies should first ensure that these counter-narrative campaigns are successful. With the available skills and tools that ICT companies have at their disposal, they are uniquely positioned to facilitate this necessary evaluation.
Numerous studies show that not only are the individual motivations for joining an extremist group widely varied, but the ways in which those involved with violent extremism disengage from such activity are also widely varied. Furthermore, the reasons for engagement and disengagement with extremist content is complex and individuals may hold extremist beliefs without actually doing anything about those beliefs. In fact, researchers have found that beliefs alone are not necessarily indicative or predictive of any action.
Creators of counter-narrative programs that use interaction with content as their measure of success have not actually proven that their programs are successful. While it is understandably difficult to prove that a user has decided not to do something based on counter-narrative content, there are lessons that can be taken from other, older arenas. The relative failures of anti-trafficking and anti-piracy “counter-narrative” programs to create any meaningful impact on each issue is not promising for counter-narrative projects in general. In contrast, the relative success of anti-gang initiatives that are embedded in broader societal structures may hold lessons for future counter-narrative projects.
The increasing focus on counter-narrative initiatives as a potential counter to extremism is, as of yet, unsupported with empirical data and methodologically robust monitoring and evaluation practices proving material long-term efficacy. In order for counter-narrative programs to be validated, metrics of success must move away from narrow measures based solely on engagement and instead towards longitudinal studies measuring behavioral change or tracking change. However, ICT companies are in a particularly well-suited position to study user behavior in this way—and could lead the way in the field.
Note: Kai Brunson, Olivia Rao, and Jennifer Ryder offered early research assistance on this project.
This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.
 This definition is adapted from: Briggs, Rachel, & Feve, Sebastien. “Review of Programs to Counter Narratives of Violent Extremism: What Works and What are the Implications for Government?” Institute for Strategic Dialogue, 2013. Accessed September 20, 2016.
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