The Failure of Government Websites: Fighting Youth Radicalisation & Extremism

March 21, 2017
When trying to speak to the youth about the ideology and appeal of extremist and radical groups, most institutional and government websites lack a certain something, a certain "je ne sais quoi" to be convincing at all. But, quoi the f#ck is it? ... Most certainly the one thing they lack is passion. (That and a real long-term plan to stop the appeal of radicalisation and violence)

An epic communication failure 

Aside from a few recent successes in the digital world, such as that of the GDS (government digital service) work in the UK, far too many government websites still talk to their citizens in the driest, most horrendous way. The writing style literally makes you want to shoot yourself in the head. 

They direly lack compassion for their online visitors and it's well time to bring some TLC back in. Let's see how adding some real bits of humanity can help governments do their job better.

We're not going to talk here about the administrative side of things such as the GDS's work (even if it's worth looking at it). Our main culprit are government initiatives aimed at the youth or marginalised communities at risk of radicalisation - whether it's islamic or far-right extremism.

Passion-less beings

The main problem with these is that they believe they are and have to be passion-less entities by nature. Hence the writing style is as dry as possible so as to avoid offending anyone.

It's absolutely key that governments can show how much they care about their citizens and the cause they've set to fight for by constantly working on the language and the content in general: imagery, videos... having a real content strategy. The same goes for the user experience, showing passion through friendly and clarity, not only spending time testing the website and receiving feedback but engaging with people to find out what they need - they are responsible for creating harmonious societies and communities after all.

From UN operations to EU awareness raising and education websites, in my opinion there is a failure of epic proportions. Kind of like when France or the UK try to publish content around fighting extremism amongst young people. It is so unbearably boring, when not outright lame. 

Measuring the effectiveness of public awareness campaigns

Talking to the right people

Measuring the success of such initiatives I'm sure is looking at traffic on those government and public organisation websites. But what traffic are they looking at - and how well do they drill into the data? These sites get too much "fake" traffic, not so much spam, as people who aren't the target audience. Academics, experts, students in foreign affairs and publix policy and job applicants. 

In other words, people who already know everything there is to know about the EU, UN or whichever institution you like - i.e. not the target audience.

Unless they manage to incentivise people to register and give their age, I somehow doubt they try to know whether they're reaching the right population. Engagement is often abysmally poor (especially with the target population), whether it's in the form of comments or sharing links, which makes it harder to measure the impact of the content.

If you're still not sure about my argument, consider this: when was the last time you saw an article from a government or public run website go viral? Their writing style goes all too often against every possible rule of creating "awesome content".

Going where people hang out

The thing that governments don't get is that they need to be where people consume content. Advertising on the wrong platform is pretty much a lost cause. Like any business, they need to understand their target audience. For public campaigns aimed at kids, consider investing your time and resources on Snapchat, Instagram or YouTube. Having everything on one website that no one visits is such a waste of public money.

Things are changing though, like the GDS efforts I mentioned earlier but this isn't quite the main issue. But it's when trying to advance social, political or ideological arguments that, in my opinion, governments fail spectacularly.  

It's even nearly impossible to argue anything ideological, whether it's human rights or freedom, when 99% of governments' efforts go toward consumerism and boosting all kinds of revenue (state, corporate or individual). And as the same time we see a regression of human rights and privacy in worrying ways all around the world. Hypocrisy doesn't sell very well.

Brand guidelines and bold opinions

Why all the rage? 

It's not that I bear a particular grudge against any institution or organisation at all, but the mass failure of the public system to find the right voice to address its own citizens bug me. 

With violent extremist groups on the rise, I am shocked at their inability to communicate effectively with the people they claim to represent.

Wasting public resources

While it didn't bother me as much before, I thought it was a bit ridiculous how this or that United Nations website or EU campaign was getting no traction, but now I realise the dangers of the situation and the massive waste of public resources which we fund.  I used to think it was pretty cool that what started as a student project could compete on the largest topics online with major publications and that even UNICEF or universities where nowhere near the top.

Many (like UNICEF) have however masively caught up on social media. But only on so many platforms (nearly none seem to understand how to make it on YouTube where half of the world hangs out), often reaching people who already agree with their views. What's the point of that?

Some of the largest charities and public institutions still have less following than my local up-and-coming band on YouTube.  

If the web of social media has taught us anything is that it thrives on bold statements and strongly opinionated people. And that regular, outstanding quality content is key to winning people's attention. 

Youth indoctrination, ideology and the weight of institutions

Learning to write again

Writing for the web isn't like writing at school, much less university. You're much better off learning from literary books instead. Go and play with the language, twist the grammar to find interesting structures and catchy phrases. 

The most famous writers on the planet do it, it's those who study them or pretend to protect the language you need to fight off.  Use any linguistic technique that will help you create a relationship with the reader, and mostly to generate emotions and let your personality shine.

Unfortunately, like many big companies, government websites are weighed down by their history, self-awareness and ill-adapted brand guidelines.

Large organisations though are unbelievably averse to showing any hint of humanity: humour, opinion, values, etc. Yet ironically they are made of so many humans, but the weight of processes has de-humanised them over time.

Let "real people" talk

They're too often dull and clunky and they feel that they have to be in order to be taken seriously. In the worse case scenario, you should at least let "real people" do the talking for you. Why not get in touch with the target audience you're actually trying to connect with and let them speak for you?

However if you're serious about becoming an authority on the web, a presence that people not only trust but come to like over time, then you need to show some personality. The two key values on the web are trust and attention. You could replace trust with authenticity though, as they are to some extent interchangeable in that people will trust you if they feel you are being genuine and not trying to scam them.

That being said in this so called "post-truth"  world of viral fake news it turns out people will also trust sites that tell them what they want to hear or that tap into their fears and anxiety. But I'm fairly sure (and I hope) that's not what public funded websites aim to do - at least not in Western countries.

I'm not talking about mass media but really about those usually hardly convincing public awareness campaigns. I'm not the only one to think so, check out the video below by Scott Atran, speaking at the United Nations:


Three keys to fighting extremism:

More concretely you need a real long term plan to fight extremism. This starts by recognising your own flaws. The extremist discourse is appealing because it points out real flaws in the system and thrives on the anger that these generate.

1. A real plan

Saying your country stands for human rights, freedom or dignity when every day we see this is only a secondary priority isn't convincing. We can all see that the priority is consumption. Selling stuff is your #1 priority. Not human rights, not freedom, not the improvement of democracy. 

It is a problem when this is the main priority and national value you give to the entire nation (or world). I'm not saying capitalism is inherently evil, that's another debate, but governments choose what comes first after all: the money or the human.

If you prefer talking about opportunities for everyone, then fine but similarly we all know this isn't true. Racism and discrimination for example are rife in most countries and prevent equality of opportunity at every step. You need to balance your priorities and focus on social harmony too, focus on the equality bit.

2. Be authentic

This stems from the previous idea, no matter how charming or convincing you are, if you're faking it, people will sense it sooner or later. Always. And it will backfire in the worst possible way. France can talk all it wants about "liberté, égalité, fraternité", the people living in its suburban ghettos know all too well this has become the country's biggest lie - to the point that it becomes insulting to refer to it.

Of course this kind of "mantra" - or national values - are more aspirational, something the nation should always attempt to achieve, improve and refine. But when it feels like the country is going the opposite direction, it's quite understandable (though absolutely not excusable) that some feel attracted by extremist rhetorics.

3. Be proud, stand your ground, show your personality

If your beef is against extremism, violence or sexuality, you're trying to tackle head on very tough topics and competition. You just can't be dull. It doesn't mean you have to constantly yell stupid things Trump-style but you do need to take a strong stance on those issues and show some passion (goddammit!).

It's best if you find a handful of people (or even just a couple) to represent your government website or campaign, people that will be relatable. People that the youth can identify with, because they will be able to speak openly and honestly about the issues they have, their doubts and anxieties.

Taking risks is one of the best ways to show authenticity online. 

Government websites tend to be unbelievably risk averse when it comes to communication. It's like they've taken an oath to be as boring as they can possibly conceive.

Being proud and standing your ground doesn't mean you can't show fragility or acknowledge your own shortcomings. There is incommensurate strength in openness. But it is a risky strategy that most will shy away from.

Examples of websites that shine with passion

Not great traffic wise, but it is infused with passion in every blog post. They are fighting for Roma rights every day and they show it. And it shows on their social media following. Kudos!

For once a really cool campaign coming out of the private sector. It's pretty much undeniable

Developed by Sports England, I absolutely love this campaign, in particular this poster which tackles so many prejudices in one go:

this girl can a kick right in the stereotypes poster
This Girl Can's epic kickboxking poster

Wrapping up: help me!

I'm sure we can find better campaigns together! Help me find new ones you've come across, from all over the world, and add them to the comment section below. 

Let's help our governments better understand how to communicate with our youth about everything from political ideology to brainwashing, extremism and indoctrination. If school has taught me anything, it's that teenagers deserve better counselling and guidance. We never seem to have enough money for those guys and ironically we like to complain when they feel left off and start getting in trouble.

Banner image credit: courtesy of Maurice

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Dario Berrebi

Digital strategist, researcher & filmmaker. 

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