Seeing Eye to Eye: Viewing Multistakeholder Work through a Participatory Lens

By Ashley A. Mattheis

The Seeing Eye to Eye: Developing Sustainable Multistakeholder Communities (SE2E) project was developed and funded through the 2022 Terrorism and Social Media (TASM) Conference sandpit event. The project aim is conducting empirical research into how various stakeholders view and experience multistakeholderism in countering terrorism and violent extremism online (TVE) as part of the larger umbrella of “preventing and countering violent extremism,” or P/CVE. A primary animating question of the sandpit team as we developed the project was: “How can a shared responsibility framework for robust cross sector work be developed?”

The Need for New Approaches to Multistakeholder Work in P/CVE and TVE Online

In thinking about this question, the SE2E team began to focus on the need for bridging between stakeholder / sectoral frameworks as part of the design of research projects. Findings from our broadly scoped review of literature (multistakeholderism, multi-sector interventions, implementation science, team science, etc.,) also foreground the importance of integrating stakeholder partners and their perspectives more fully. In this area of work, then, better understanding issues related to differing missions, perspectives, practices, norms, and limitations of various stakeholders are key factors to shaping more successful engagements. Barriers to integration of sectors and stakeholders in projects often include 1) what counts as expert knowledge / who gets recognized as an expert, 2) which stakeholders have extant relationships with actors in other sectors, and  3) tensions between funder priorities and on-the-ground realities in communities. In these cases, different sectoral perspectives and practices including institutional biases as well as differential power relationships between stakeholder areas that can disadvantage civil society and frontline practitioner roles may cause tensions and make relationships between stakeholder groups more complex.

Along with these considerations about “doing” multistakeholder work in P/CVE and TVE online, there are real and critically important material impacts of this work. Securitization of populations through intervention practices has been an increasingly discussed problem in the field. Moreover, funding priorities focused on P/CVE and TVE online work can draw money away from other global priorities forcing NGOs and other practitioner organizations to reframe problems to fit the rubric where money is available. This poses serious risks of creating disjuncture between research and practice with potentially disastrous effects on outcomes from a variety of stakeholder perspectives. For example, the Mixed, Unstable, and Unclear (MUU) category of extremism added to the Prevent Strategy is used to refer youth that teachers identify as needing support but who may have no relation with existing legal and intervention frameworks for extremism or terrorism indicating a blind spot. Similarly, funding may prioritize specific stakeholder concerns such as a policy focus on reducing violence, which then reduces capacity for practitioner concerns such as the need for longer-term, more involved engagements further upstream of the problem (media literacy, wider youth activities, etc.,). Indeed, robust approaches that better incorporate civil society organizations, specifically victim-engaged and community-engaged approaches are key to reducing these issues and better tackling the problem. Such approaches are being forwarded by programs like the Eradicate Hate Global Summit, organized by the survivors of the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre and by academic programs such as the Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab (PERIL) which utilizes public health and education approaches (a series of literatures SE2E has also used).

Adapting a Participatory Lens as Paradigm for Multistakeholder Work in P/CVE and TVE Online

Other fields that do similarly cross-sectoral, community-engaged work have for decades placed emphasis on evaluating and studying how to create effective teams (Science of Team Science, SciTS) and how to deploy effective interventions (Implementation Science, ImpSci). More details about SciTS and ImpSci will be included in the full SE2E project report later this year. P/CVE and TVE online response, as areas of research and community-engaged work, have not yet generated field-wide research streams focused on either of these evaluative aspects or best practices development in multistakeholder research or interventions. The practices empirically assessed and tested, and the methods developed through SciTS and ImpSci, predominantly in allied health, public health, social work, education, and other related fields, can help P/CVE and TVE online response in developing effective, sustainable multistakeholder approaches in our own work.

One of the frameworks developed by these fields is broadly termed “participatory research,” where research participants and researched communities are engaged as partners in the research by design. Participatory research methodologies are rooted in addressing historical problems with extractive research—taking things from communities being researched but not providing anything in return—and asymmetrical power relations between researchers and communities researched. To address these issues tenets of participatory research include, “…co-creating knowledge, increasing ownership among participants related to the…problem and potential solutions…can promote social change within the community.” As a model in our arena, PERIL’s values incorporate a community-centered, participatory approach into their programs. Under the participatory research umbrella, we highlight Participatory Action Research (PAR), used primarily in community-engaged research in fields such as development studies, public health, education, and social work, because it enables the generation of active responses to community-based problems, issues, and concerns. Importantly for the P/CVE and TVE online, PAR enables an applied solutions-oriented research method that foregrounds complex, iterative research with shared responsibility across multiple sectors around specific topics of concern.

Direct work with communities (particularly practitioner work and qualitative research) are the most obvious for using participatory methodologies and PAR in P/CVE and TVE online work as can be seen in the framing of PERIL’s Building Resilient and Inclusive Communities of Knowledge (BRICK) program. SE2E, however, has focused on how to begin adapting these tenets and practices for intra-research work within multistakeholder engagements amongst cross sectoral stakeholder groups. This requires shifting our lens on multistakeholder work in P/CVE and TVE online toward understanding the range of stakeholder groups as a large “community of practice” (CoP) whose sectoral interests in P/CVE and TVE Online response are essential components of working toward solutions to the problems posed by extremism and terrorism. Thus, community-engaged in this sense, is two-fold including both direct community work and work within and across the P/CVE-TVE online CoP. Importantly, the P/CVE-TVE online CoP naturally includes survivors and communities harmed by extremist and terrorist violence, civil society organizations, and educators along with academic, front line practitioner, research practitioner, non-governmental organizations, law enforcement, policy and regulatory, as well as tech industry stakeholders. Better integration of all these perspectives and participation from the entire CoP from the outset of projects is essential.

More robust and effective stakeholder engagement is especially urgent given the growing focus on multistakeholder work. This is especially important as such work is aimed at the development of interventions intended for deployment across a variety of sites and geographies each with their own local contexts, histories, and relationships to extremism and terrorism. Moreover, addressing both the on and offline aspects of extremism and terrorism, fragmented ideological frameworks increasingly driven by digital media technologies, and myriad other complexities as an integrated contemporary experience requires participation from every part of the CoP to be successful. Integrating a community-of-practice approach in this work provides a tested methodological framework for conducting successful and sustainable projects. It also, crucially, foregrounds ethical community-centric approaches and participatory frames such as PAR for this field where work has tangible, and life altering (often negative) material impacts on specific populations (e.g., youth, Muslims, etc.,) or on specific human rights (e.g., free speech, etc.,). The SE2E project aims to contribute a multi-perspectival approach to evaluating experiences of multistakeholderism in P/CVE. More detailed findings are forthcoming in our project report, however, given the preliminary nature of SE2E, we encourage members of the broader P/CVE and TVE online community-of-practice to also consider multistakeholderism through a participatory lens.

Ashley A. Mattheis is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University, a member of the Cyber Threats Research Centre (CYTREC) at Swansea University, and a member of the VOX-Pol Network.  Follow her on X: @aamattheis

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