A new project has been announced by Arizona State University’s Center on the Future of War and think tank New America. This collaboration has created a subset within ASU titled, “The Weaponized Narrative Initiative.” Two Co-directors, Brad Allenby and Joel Garreau, have penned a must-read opinion piece at Defense One, wherein they have employed the Orwellian catchphrase of “weaponized narrative” to replace what’s commonly known as propaganda.
The two authors center their piece with a premise of apocalyptic concern about foreign State actors and influence peddling, saying that “in the hands of professionals” the emotional techniques of narrative are a cornerstone of perception control over the target populace.
In the hands of professionals, the powerful emotions of anger and fear can be used to control adversaries, limit their options, and disrupt their functional capabilities.
Ironically their justifications for the U.S. government to make propaganda Mission #1 begin with two embedded links to dubious claims and outright falsehoods stemming from the discredited Washington Post promoting the idea that the Russians hacked the U.S. election and are supposedly employing a battery of alternative news outlets, to produce “fake news.”
Other motives cited by the authors for taking extreme action are everything from Brexit to Ukraine and basically anything else that would see people awakening en masse to the gross mismanagement of their feudal leaders. These populist uprisings are instead seen as coordinated efforts by a cadre of mind terrorists who apparently want to “undermine an opponent’s civilization, identity, and will by generating complexity, confusion, and political and social schisms.”
While I suppose that it makes perfect sense to utilize duplicity in a missive about the value of propaganda, it doesn’t portend an ease of finding truth in the future. This initiative essentially argues for exactly what the establishment has been seeking – the co-opting of all forms of communication under the all-consuming directive of National Security. Moreover, it is also part of the ongoing (official) change of position from utilizing propaganda overseas to permitting it at home by eliminating in 2013 the ban upon that activity. This fact demands us to revisit the above quote about using anger and fear as a form of control if we are to be the designated recipients as well.
Weaponized Narrative Is The New Battlespace
Brad Allenby and Joel Garreau
Conventional military dominance is still critical to the superpower status of the United States. But even in a military sense, it is no longer enough: if an American election can be controlled by an adversarial power, then stealth aircraft and special forces are not the answer. With lawmakers poised to authorize $160 million to counter Russian “fake news” and disinformation, and the CIA and the Congress examining meddling in the U.S. election and democracies around the world, it’s time to see weaponized narrative for what it is: a deep threat to national security.
Weaponized narrative seeks to undermine an opponent’s civilization, identity, and will by generating complexity, confusion, and political and social schisms. It can be used tactically, as part of explicit military or geopolitical conflict; or strategically, as a way to reduce, neutralize, and defeat a civilization, state, or organization. Done well, it limits or even eliminates the need for armed force to achieve political and military aims.
The efforts to muscle into the affairs of the American presidency, Brexit, the Ukraine, the Baltics, and NATO reflect a shift to a “post-factual” political and cultural environment that is vulnerable to weaponized narrative. This begs three deeper questions:
- How global is this phenomenon?
- Are the underlying drivers temporary or systemic?
- What are the implications for an American military used to technological dominance?
Far from being simply a U.S. or U.K. phenomenon, shifts to “post-factualism” can be seen in Poland, Hungary, Turkey, France, and the Philippines, among other democracies. Russia, whose own political culture is deeply post-factual and indeed post-modern, is now ably constructing ironic, highly cynical, weaponized narratives that were effective in the Ukrainian invasion, and are now destabilizing the Baltic states and the U.S. election process.
Such a large and varied shift to weaponized narrative implies that the enablers are indeed systemic. One fundamental underpinning – often overlooked – is the accelerating volume and velocity of information. Cultures, institutions, and individuals are, among many other things, information-processing mechanisms. As they become overwhelmed with information complexity, the tendency to retreat into simpler narratives becomes stronger.
Under this stress, cultures fragment. Institutions are stretched until they become ineffective or even dysfunctional. Individuals who define their identity primarily through the state – such as Americans, Russians, Chinese, or Europeans – retreat to a mythic Golden Age nationalism, while those who prioritize cultural and religious bonds retreat to fundamentalism.
Narrative is as old as tribes. Humans are pattern-seeking storytelling animals. We cannot endure an absence of meaning. Rather than look up at the distribution of lights in the night sky and deal with randomness, we will eagerly connect those dots and adorn them with the most elaborate – even poetic – tales of heroes and princesses and bears and dippers. We have a hard-wired need for myth. Narrative is basic to what it means to be human.
What’s new is the extraordinary power of today’s weaponized narrative. It attacks our group identity – our sense of who we are, our privilege of not being identified as “other.” The rise of the Connected Age allows attacks that tear down old identities that have bound us together. But it also allows the creation of narratives that define the new differences between “us” and “them” that are worth fighting for.
Weaponized narrative comes at a critical juncture. The speed of upheaval in our lives is unprecedented. It will be filled by something. We are desperate for something to hang on to.
By offering cheap passage through a complex world, weaponized narrative furnishes emotional certainty at the cost of rational understanding. The emotionally satisfying decision to accept a weaponized narrative — to believe, to have faith — inoculates cultures, institutions, and individuals against counterarguments and inconvenient facts.
This departure from rationality opens such ring-fenced belief communities to manipulation and their societies to attack. These communities can be strengthened through media tools and messages that reinforce the narrative — crucially, by demonizing outsiders. Trust is extended only to those who believe, leaving other institutional and social structures to erode.
In the hands of professionals, the powerful emotions of anger and fear can be used to control adversaries, limit their options, and disrupt their functional capabilities. This is a unique form of soft power. In such campaigns, facts are not necessary because – contrary to the old memes of the Enlightenment – truth does not necessarily prevail. It can be overwhelmed with constantly repeated and replenished falsehood. Especially powerful are falsehoods or simplifications that the target cohort has been primed to believe by the underlying narratives with which they are also being supplied.
It’s a self-reinforcing loop. This process was clear in Ukraine, in Brexit, in creation of alt-right and other far right and left communities in many countries, and in the American presidential election. All of these campaigns combine indigenous factors with known or suspected Russian deployment of weaponized narrative, achieving significant benefits for Russia with low risk of conventional military responses by the West. Indeed, the response by America, NATO, and European states has been confused, sporadic, and ineffective.
In the short term, then, weaponized narrative challenges existing Western military and security institutions grown comfortable in their post-Cold War conventional-force dominance. At least one major adversary now has a capability – and indeed a new battlespace – that is not just unfamiliar. It is one where institutional, historical, and cultural factors put the U.S. at a significant disadvantage.
This article was originally published by Activist Post