Word Bombs: Using Strategic Communication to Counter Domestic Violent Extremists

– Executive Summary

This thesis sets out to investigate how strategic communications can be incorporated into countering domestic violent extremist (DVE) violence in the United States. Strategic communications use messaging or counternarratives based on research and intelligence of the individual’s or group’s behaviors and perceptions to fulfill the organization’s mission, in this case, decreasing violence.[1] There has been a steady increase in DVE activity in the United States recently,[2] and as a result, the spread of unrest and violence has left law enforcement unsure of how to counter it. To further exacerbate the unrest, anarchist violent extremists (AVE) have used dissidents to promote their anarchist ideology.[3] Right-wing organizations such as Proud Boys, white supremacists, and militias have been increasingly aggressive toward law enforcement and counter-protesters, leading to violence. To promote their ideology, extremists use social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit.[4] The U.S. government and law enforcement must proactively mitigate violence utilizing strategic communication strategies using counternarratives.


In Chapter I, the literature review examines prior research in inoculation strategies, nudge theory, psychological and social approaches, and counternarratives to counter DVEs. Inoculation theory and nudge theory are integral to applying strategic communication in the United States due to First Amendment protections and psychological reactance. The literature review shows that DVEs use social media to promote and radicalize vulnerable populations and others susceptible to manipulation. Emerging research shows social media tools like memes and social bots are used to promote extremism, but the same tools can also be used to respond to extremist online media. Literature and prior work into psychological and social behavioral methods, such as reasoned action theory, provide an analytical framework to understand how and why extremists believe and behave violently. Backed by scientific literature, using reasoned action theory as a scientific method for understanding extremist messaging and behavior, combined with work into counternarrative strategies, this thesis helps create a method for creating and disseminating strategic communications.

Chapter II discusses how radicalization toward extremism manifests in various forms and how strategic communication can help decrease violent ideology. The section explores narratives, how they work, their persuasiveness, and how emotions play a role in influence. Understanding narratives plays an essential role in recognizing the themes of extremists’ messages and goals. Practitioners will be able to create effective counternarratives after they understand and identify the extremists’ themes.

Chapter III explores how extremists currently use propaganda to promote their ideology, messages, and narratives. Propaganda can be in many forms, and analyzing extremists’ images depicting approved violence, violent memes, and language will help practitioners identify themes to counter their messages. Because inoculation is a proactive way to decrease radicalization and create resistance to extremism in the United States, it should be done as early as possible and start, ideally, in schools and youth programs across the country.[5] Inoculation strategies are not disseminated with one event but with a series of messages over time. In addition to inoculation, this thesis explored nudge theory and the strategies from Inside the Nudge Unit.[6] Nudge theory provides an ethical framework for conducting communication strategies in the United States with libertarian paternalism as a guide for choice architecture and positive nudges.

In Chapter IV, this thesis examines how DVEs use social media to promote their ideology, what they think of the media, and how artificial intelligence (AI) can be used to counter online extremism. Examining how right-wing and left-wing extremists use social media, their preferred platforms, and the type of communication and propaganda they produce is needed for practitioners to develop counternarratives. There are examples and studies of how right-wing groups, especially white supremacists, perceive news media and adapt because of those beliefs. Extremists’ use of social media was backed by statistical data and research that showed links to violent rhetoric and physical violence.

While delving into social psychological approaches, Chapter V investigates how emotional messages can influence people and cause positive or negative reactions. The theory of reasoned action, theory of planned behavior, and behavior prediction models are evaluated and led to the use of reasoned action theory as a template for determining how background information, beliefs, and intentions form behaviors and their subsequent actions. After implementing reasoned action theory, this thesis examines how to analyze extremists’ narratives and construct counternarratives using a scientific and systematic method. Last, this section looks at some overall strategies to disseminate strategic communications.

In Chapter VI, four case studies are presented using DVE group examples from anarchists, Proud Boys, Boogaloo Boys, and Atomwaffen (AWD). Each case study looks at the group’s ideology, violence, social media, and demographics to better understand the themes of the group messaging. The case studies provide examples of the behavior or violent act practitioners want to change and the belief behind the behavior. Next, using the Reasoned Action Theory model, knowledge of the group, and messaging theme, the case study provides an example of how to craft a counternarrative to decrease violence. The case studies conclude with specific examples of how best to disseminate strategic communications.


This thesis intends to see how strategic communication strategies can help disrupt and decrease violence based on DVE ideology and intentions. Law enforcement must shift toward preventative measures and strategies, which have close ties to threat assessment strategies. The goal of threat assessment teams is to stop attacks before they occur. These methods can help build counternarratives and interventions with DVE groups and individuals. Law enforcement can use professionals already versed in addressing rhetoric and potential violence to implement strategic communications in their units.

Inoculation strategies, shown to be effective in several other countries, can cultivate resistance to extremist content, messaging, and radicalization. Because ongoing inoculation works best when introduced in the formative years of an individual’s life, inoculation methods to fight violent extremism need to be part of the educational system to help shape healthy beliefs and a culture that rejects violence. The United States should begin supporting and funding educational strategies, curriculum, media outreach, and online messaging to fight violent rhetoric using inoculation strategies.

This thesis discusses nudge theory strategies to help guide practitioners using strategic communication to change violent behavior. Nudge theory introduces a partial ethical framework of libertarian paternalism to influence a change in negative behaviors. Libertarian paternalism provides Americans with a choice and attempts to achieve goals to change negative behavior. The government must start researching, implementing, and working toward evolving behavioral science strategies like nudge theory to address extremism. federal, state, and local governments must invest more in the study and development AI to counter violent extremism. This thesis provides examples of how Google, Facebook, and YouTube have used AI to recognize and block certain extremist content or language, yet there needs to be more strategic methods. Government research, ongoing evaluation, and adjustments are required for the fast-evolving technological capabilities. The United States must be a leader, influencer, and supporter of AI development and implementation in countering extremism.

This thesis recommends using investigators and analysts in conjunction with those who study DVEs or work on the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) to develop specific counternarratives for those espousing violence. Investigators can utilize undercover agents, online agents, informants, and social bots to disseminate counternarratives. Because professionals on these teams already have tools and guidance on how to implement preventative measures in potentially violent individuals, the transition to educating and implementing the use of strategic communication strategies would be seamless.

Governments must be cautious when disseminating counternarratives or other strategic communications due to extremists’ psychological reactions to government messaging. Evidence shows that the government needs to play an indirect role if it cannot apply subversive strategic communications methods. A partnership with web, software, and app designers as well as corporations and community partners is essential and should incorporate psychological approaches that use heuristics, user engagement, attractive programming, and compelling narratives that influence DVEs.

Government resources, research, and investing could significantly contribute to understanding extremism, its themes, and how to counter violent rhetoric. Therefore, future research and scientific data need to be developed, explored, and modified as the extremist threat evolves. New and innovative methodologies need to be based on systematic and standardized practices, which help measure the success and failures of strategic communications tactics. Government leadership can help develop future strategies, tools, and dissemination methods in partnership with private entities and companies.

The recommended course of action is establishing policy and strategies to implement strategic communication to counter DVEs’ violent ideology. Strategic communications can be accomplished through government support, research, intelligence, and partnerships with a commitment to strategic communication concepts. Together with behavioral scientists, special strategic communication units, public partners, credible messengers, and cyber, these partnerships will work to establish a modus operandi and policies, integrating strategic communication to counter DVEs. Therefore, inoculation strategies, nudges, and counternarratives need to become part of the U.S. government’s policy to increase positive perspectives and decrease DVEs violence.

[1] Hani Khan, “What Is Strategic Communications?,” Simpplr (blog), May 13, 2020, https://www.simpplr.com/​blog/​2020/​what-is-strategic-communication/.

[2] Matthew Levitt, “Recent Trends in Terrorism and Counterterrorism: National Practices in Countering Violent Extremism,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy Interviews and Presentations, November 16, 2017, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/​policy-analysis/​recent-trends-terrorism-and-counterterrorism-national-practices-countering-violent.

[3] Dana M. Williams, Black Flags and Social Movements: A Sociological Analysis of Movement Anarchism (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2017), https://muse.jhu.edu/​book/​67244.

[4] Philip Baugut and Katharina Neumann, “How Right-Wing Extremists Use and Perceive News Media,” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 96, no. 3 (2019): 696–720, https://doi.org/​10.1177/​1077699018803080.

[5] Kurt Braddock, “Vaccinating against Hate: Using Attitudinal Inoculation to Confer Resistance to Persuasion by Extremist Propaganda,” Terrorism and Political Violence 34, no. 2 (2022): 240–62, https://doi.org/​10.1080/​09546553.2019.1693370.

[6] David Halpern, Inside the Nudge Unit (London, UK: Virgin Digital, 2015).

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