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Are "Former" Extremists Credible Messengers in P/CVE?

March 27th, 2024

By Dr. Gordon Clubb & Brad Galloway

One motivation for P/CVE programmes involving former extremists in P/CVE work, whether as peer mentors or in public talks, is their perceived credibility due to their lived experience. As is to be expected, the matter is more nuanced than whether ‘formers’ are or are not credible messengers. The article on ‘Perceived Credibility of Far-Right Former Extremists’ challenged the notion that ‘formers’ are intrinsically credible but this does not mean ‘formers’ cannot be credible messengers. Instead, the findings are an opportunity to reflect on practices to better communicate the credibility of ‘formers’ as P/CVE practitioners and to shape practices of involving ‘formers’ in P/CVE.

Given the negative reaction to the aforementioned article from some quarters, it is worth restating what the data does and does not show. The findings showed that describing a messenger as a ‘former’ neither increased nor decreased  perceived credibility among a general audience, though it did have a negative effect among audiences that may be sympathetic to far-right views. The survey results mainly reinforced a point that many in the P/CVE field have been saying for a while: simply being a ‘former’ does not necessarily make you credible and not all ‘formers’ will be automatically perceived as credible. This position is still compatible with the view that individual ‘formers’ can generate credibility in different contexts and roles and can leverage their experience, personality or skills, or through professionalisation.

The value of ‘formers’ in P/CVE is often related to their credibility but this way of framing the issue is narrow. Credibility typically invokes trust and objectivity - hence why institutional messengers are seen as more credible in research on the topic. The term ‘authenticity’ has also been used to capture the contribution of ‘formers’; credibility as defined by practitioners in a related field departs substantially from typical academic measures and instead focuses more on the relatability of messenger and audience. Therefore,  justifying the involvement of ‘formers’ in P/CVE on the grounds of their credibility does not fully capture their added value, which is partly a function of  their authenticity and relatability to target audiences. Viewed this way, ‘formers’ do have a unique role to play in P/CVE that other messengers may not. Specifically in public talks, the contribution of ‘formers’ is their ability to generate interest to start a conversation – people may be more willing to attend a counter-narrative talk if it involves a ‘former’. This attraction is arguably more intrinsic to ‘formers’ than any notion of credibility - ‘formers’ greatly represent narratives of redemption and rehabilitation which in some contexts have a strong cultural resonance, which may be why there is often bi-partisan support for involving them  in P/CVE.   

‘Formers’ are active in a wide range of roles yet most research that disputes their credibility or effectiveness has focused on public facing work. ‘Formers’ play a significant role in peer mentoring; the research findings may be interpreted by some as a sign that programmes should focus on this activity over others if and when involving ‘formers’. While we see value in ‘formers’ working in both public facing work and peer mentoring, it is worthwhile distinguishing the roles because credibility functions differently. In peer mentoring, the credibility and authenticity of formers relates not so much to their previous views but rather to their experience exiting  extremist movements. In mentoring, the perception of trust, a key measure of credibility, is not automatic – it emerges from the process of mentoring itself, and is thus tied to the communicative process as well as the ‘street cred’ the mentor is able to establish. ‘Formers’ can also become assets because of the accumulation of biographical experience, motivation, self-reflection, and professional training. For this reason, many Exit organisations value ‘formers’ as peer mentors. Claims there is no evidence that ‘formers’ are effective, even in peer mentoring, tend to dismissithe validity of important qualitative data showing that  practitioners find added value in utilising ‘formers’ in peer mentoring and view their work as effective (within a defined structure).  Indeed, ‘formers’ that operate in multi-disciplinary P/CVE teams have become effective resources for professionals and practitioners that operate in the same spaces as the formers because of their knowledge of the intra-workings of ideologically motivated violent extremist groups and exiting from them.

Nevertheless, even in public facing work there are some ways ‘formers’ can cultivate a perception of credibility which can complement other attributes. The findings from ‘Perceived Credibility of Far-Right Former Extremists’ underlined a common point made by practitioners: not all ‘formers’ are created equally; they are not intrinsically appropriate for P/CVE work. The challenge is to identify what makes someone appropriate for public-facing work and, more importantly, what are the responsibilities of organisations that involve ‘formers’ in this line of work. Secondly, the findings pointed to mechanisms that may help generate credibility – talks could be run with a mix of speakers, ‘formers’ with police officials or other experts with official positions/qualifications to benefit from aggregate effects of an event rather than an individual talk. 

Within talks there are varied approaches, and some can undermine a speaker’s credibility. While these challenges need to be addressed at a programme level, in the context of a public talk it may be beneficial to articulate these issues because it highlights the costs ‘formers’ face in delivering their messages. Messaging which implicitly or explicitly talks about the benefits the ‘former’ gains from talking publicly on their experiences – financial, career or ego – can risk signalling cheap talk and thus  be detrimental to generating credibility ‘Formers’ who sell merchandise may be particularly vulnerable to such negative perceptions as this further commercializes their message and reinforces the underlying financial benefit.

In a forthcoming book the authors conclude that the policy debate must shift away from whether or not ‘formers’ should be involved in developing and implementing global norms and standards for involving ‘formers’ in P/CVE work. Critiques on the credibility of ‘formers’ will not end the practice (and nor should it) because credibility – at least when understood institutionally - is not the main advantage of involving ‘formers’ and it is not the sole reason why governments and funders support their involvement in various activities in. 

Author Profiles

Dr. Gordon Clubb

Brad Galloway