Information ‘Warfare’ Terrifies Me
Once upon a time, a set of steadfast Western values held our social fabric intact. But with the rise to power of evildoer Donald Trump and his minion army of astroturfing Russian bots, we’ve lost the way in the bleak woods of lies, cheats, and scandals. As the world’s most exceptional protagonist, the U.S. must now embark on a heroic quest to retrieve facticity and save the planet.
So the narrative goes.
Since at least 2016, we’ve become obsessed with the idea that truth no longer reigns supreme in the press, our democracy, or “collective reality”. We fetishize fact checkers — brave men and women who scour the political discourse to uproot and eradicate deception. The Washington Post, for example, adopted the masthead slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” signaling its commitment to alliteration and doling out Pinocchios.
At its core, this obsession marks a newfound realization that stories and narratives — regardless of their truth-values — wield power over our cultural and social formations. If fed the right discursive ingredients, people can be made to believe or do nearly anything. It’s an important, if belated, popular insight.
Cambridge Analytica farmed our data on Facebook, imposing individualized ads, memes, and posts on politically pliable populations to bring about favorable conditions for the Brexit, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump campaigns. Russia, too, took up the mantle of influencer, sowing seeds of distrust and disorientation in our political discourse. Witness, for instance, the “patriotic” circle-jerk of triggered white boys chanting, “Russia is our friend!” It takes cunning narrative work to dismantle half a century of Cold War anti-Russia propaganda disseminated across our culture industry and woven into the very fabric of our national identity. But they did it.
Developments in artificial intelligence, moreover, introduce a whole slew frightening possibilities to our alleged democratic structures. Here’s Matt Chessen in an Atlantic Council report titled The MADCOM Future:
By probing with multiple accounts and messages, an AI could learn that personal threats to a particular journalist provoke little response, but threats to their loved ones provoke fear. So, the MADCOM (machine-driven communication system) could pose as members of a local hate group who threaten the journalist’s children until they stop reporting. pp. 10
That’s pretty terrifying, if not suspiciously detailed coming from the Senior Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of State.
But what scares me isn’t the rise of post-truth reality or narrative’s more conspicuous role in international conflict amid a booming Information Age. Rather, it’s the direction that some academic and civil society circles take this development, jam it into military discourse, and recruit average citizens to do their bidding.
A Beginning: The Search
I’m looking for a job.
I got my master’s degree last year and, as the joke about the liberal arts student goes, I’m still in customer service and retail.
But I have grand visions of a future career as a Senior Researcher at some progressive organization, like Public Citizen or the BlueGreen Alliance. I want to contribute to building a new foundation for a just society. It’s romantic. And it gets me through a forty-hour week stocking, scanning, and bagging groceries.
Looking for jobs, I happened upon the Weaponized Narrative Initiative (WNI) at Arizona State University and its related Narrative Strategies, a “think-do tank” headquartered in Alexandria, VA. The groups’ websites purport to spearhead the national discussion on the use of narrative strategies in counterterrorist measures both abroad and at home. The organizations are composed primarily of academics and former U.S. military personnel — a recipe I’ve come to regard with suspicion.
My initial thought was something like, “Perfect! I’ve spent eight years in academia deconstructing and analyzing the ways that narrative performs work on individuals’ psychological and behavioral tendencies. Instead of going the typical marketing route, I can apply my experience in rhetorical strategies to effect real change!”
My excitement over this discovery quickly faltered, however, as I continued to browse the listed publications. One book in particular caught my eye:
First of all, I find it unsettling that “killing” anyone can be framed as an easy-to-do 3-step listicle, isomorphic with frivolous posts about mindfulness techniques on Medium.
Secondly, even if Clark’s book doesn’t literally promote murder (to “kill,” here, means to prevent Al Qaeda’s online communications and recruitment tactics), it’s downright reckless to use flippantly violent language about a complex foreign relations issue involving real people in a book’s title. We really do judge books by their covers; what kind of audience does this one attract?
And third, as a citizen, I’m not sold on the implication that the work of State sovereignty ought to be delegated to me. By placing the onus of security operations on the people, the author of How You Can Kill Al Qaeda (in 3 easy steps) attempts to transform civilian subjects into paranoid state operatives. If you see something, say something. Dr. Tung-Hui Hu notes the following in his book, A Preshistory of the Cloud:
A paranoid approach to knowledge…typically duplicates and reproduces the methods of a paranoid subject’s nominal enemy. pp. 114
In an already dwindling intersubjective environment, where “-isms” increasingly wedge themselves between natural economic and social allies, fitting citizens into jingoistic militarism only facilitates resentment. You start to see the world as a battlefield and not as a space for potentially liberatory solutions.
A Middle: Narrative as Conflict
Narrative is concerned with the process of meaning-making, not with the truth or falsity of any given story.
Facts and events occur “out there” in the world, waiting to be captured and tamed in a narrative framework. People aren’t moved by objective reports and raw data; they’re driven to believe and behave according to structures of meaning that map onto their own multi-leveled identities, or the complex web of narratives that make up their subjectivity. We are meaning-seeking animals to our core.
This take on narrative, which WNI and Narrative Strategies support in their literature, appears accurate to me. But the Initiative loses me when it frames narrative as a weapon to seize and utilize in an ongoing and inevitable war between nation states.
A successful narrative campaign, they claim, will target a ground-floor population by appealing to their shared identity. Traditions, foundational texts (e.g. the Bible, the Quran), communal rites — these are the Trojan horses that a state or non-state actor may opportunistically employ to smuggle their own narratives into targets’ unwitting minds. This war’s victims are made to appear as foot soldiers and brainless homunculi devoid of self-autonomy:
Well-constructed narratives deliver meaning to a series of issues and events so that audiences don’t sort the meaning out on their own.
— Ajit Maan and Paul Cobaugh in Introduction to Narrative Warfare, pp. 35.
God forbid people determine their selves and their places in the world by sorting meaning out on their own. The mental gymnastics required to justify depriving people of their autonomy — to coerce them into artificial beliefs and actions — is on brilliant display:
It is a long-standing axiom of military strategy that the adversary always gets a vote, and adversaries of the United States, and the modern West, have voted for weaponized narrative. We cannot control that. But we can control how we respond.
It’s the United States and the “modern West” vs. non-Western adversaries. Us vs. them. Over and over again. This other-ing tactic is key to dehumanizing the target and priming your soldiers (read: internet users) to commit violence against the “enemy.”
The above quote, moreover, patently ignores decades of CIA meddling in foreign affairs. Look no further than the recent coup d’état in Bolivia or the agency’s own infamous Official CIA Manual on Trickery and Deception to question the narrator’s reliability (as any good student of literature ought to).
But shelving that, how do we respond to weaponized narrative?
[W]hat we need is an offensive strategy that gets out ahead of an adversarial narrative and invites the target audience to understand events within a framework that is advantageous to us.
— Ajit Maan in an interview with Jan Kalvik
Advantageous to whom? Who’s “us”? Who determines what counts as the “West” and its alleged superior values? These are crucial questions to ask, especially if we’re to avoid becoming the target-pawns of our own State Narrators.
And an End: Unreliable Narrators
Narrative, by its nature, is representational and perspectival. The narrator simultaneously selects and omits information, constructing the representation of reality, or meaning, he or she desires to convey.
What’s selected and omitted in the narrative told by WNI and Narrative Strategies?
Couching their methods in the language of “soft power,” exponents of weaponized narrative convince themselves and others that they’re engaged in “non-kinetic warfare” — a kind of doublespeak that eschews any responsibility for the often very kinetic, very violent outcomes of psy-op campaigns.
They frame this “war” as inevitable, spurred by mischievous foreigners. We have no choice, they say, but to engage in our own offensive narrative strategy. Our disinformation and disorientation tactics must be louder and more convincing than that of the Ruskies. We must infiltrate the peons’ minds before they develop ideas that prove detrimental to our “superior” Western values.
We’ll stop at nothing short of toppling democratically elected leaders, especially if their leftist programs threaten a neoliberal regime we’ve so carefully erected throughout the world. Private property and Laissez-faire markets are our Master Narratives.
And on that topic, we’ll recruit millions of unpaid citizen-soldiers, forever greasing an economically efficient and flexible machine through the democratization of military operations.
I’ve omitted something from my own present narrative. It turns out, not all the folks at WNI and Narrative Strategies are narrow-mindedly hawkish. In the spirit of intellectual charitableness, I’ll leave you with Alan Levinovitz, WNI brain trust member, as he concludes his article on content-streaming giants and conspiracy theory documentaries with the following:
What if elites actually want to keep us captivated by insane stories, distracted by nonsense and empowered by idiocy, while they continue to accumulate political and financial power?
Something tells me that one’s no fairytale.