Russian influence is not just SM


My mid-week short lesson about narrative

21 Feb 2018

Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen a great many headlines and interest in social media and CYBER in general as tools of influence. Whether it extremists in the Middle East, Extremists (of all types) at home, Russia, China etc. they all employ SM and CYBER operations to influence audiences. While it is true that SM (Social Media) is influential it is unwise to develop tunnel-vision and focus on it exclusively. Security will not come from a laser-focus on SM, but by way of understanding influence as a whole. This is how we can develop understanding about why SM is effective.

Every day, 24/7, my Twitter feed is full of “what the Russians did on FB”, so let’s use them as the example. Remember though, the thoughts that follow apply to influence in general, not just what Mr. Putin is up to on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or otherwise.

BLUF (an old military expression meaning: (bottom line up front), yes, Russia did use SM pervasively to impact audiences, not only in the US elections but against their perceived adversaries across the globe. Russian miss and disinformation campaigns were not just random postings. Each tweet or FB post was part of an overall campaign which in my professional opinion, were narrative-centric.

To get to my point, I believe that one of the primary reasons that made Russian SM efforts somewhat successful is because it is not only expedient, but is narrative-centric.Why” is the question I imagine many of you are now asking? In order to understand my perspective, it is important to understand narrative. As that this article is a short mid-week primer on narrative, I’ll just express the most basic and relevant issues.

The “big three” of narrative:

1. Narrative is about personal and collective identity. Literally, who you are and the same applies to the group you identity with.

2. Narrative is about meaning not necessarily about truth.

3. Many experts think of narrative in terms of content (what a story is about) but the structure (how the content is held together and presented) is also of critical importance

Identity: With these three factors in mind, consider each and every tweet, post, online article etc. that Russia weaponized during our election cycle and continues to aggressively employ. The content of each piece was tied to some element of a Russian narrative strategy, the overall being that the West is weak, immoral, a threat to itself and to others.

The so-called “weakness” was targeted by divisive content which exploited (somewhat accurately) that we are divided. Every emotional topic which sensationalized a divisive topic merely heightened the divisiveness and “proved their point”. The more divisive, the more SM weapons deployed. This continues. The reason divisive content works is about the afore-mentioned “identity” aspect of narrative. America for decades has become “tribalized” regarding politics, sports, statehood or any other of countless topics. Most Americans belong to several “tribes”. For example, someone who is from either political party is also likely a rabid sports fan, has personal issues which resonate over a whole host of social issues, belong passionately to a state (I’m a Texan, I get it), have a religious affiliation etc. These are all tribes/ hence a large part of our identity. Once tribalized, it then becomes easy to paint a situation black and white/ us vs. them and then exploit the differences. This is best accomplished with a “conflict narrative” which is the cognitive weapon Russia used/ continues to use primarily.

Meaning, not truth: Humans by default seek meaning in their lives. Story-telling or narrative has been the primary vehicle for delivering meaning since we first formed words. It’s not uncommon for a story-teller/ narrator to assemble precisely the same facts into a narrative that delivers a completely different meaning than an adversarial narrator. Again, as a Texan, the soul-stirring story of the Alamo is one of fighting heroically for freedom. To a Mexican citizen in 1836, the Alamo was the story of a bunch of ungrateful and violent extremist/ insurgents. Same story, same facts, different narrative.

Structure: How a story is told, the format and the delivery methods differ by culture. Where in many parts of the world such as Afghanistan, epic poetry without the classic Western format of beginning, conflict and ultimately, a resolution is delivered by a narrator over an extended time and is a completely different structure than we are familiar with and triggered by in the West. We, in West tend to have a limited attention span, preferring short Tweets or posts with a defined: beginning, conflict and end (or bottom line).

Summary: The point of this overly brief story about narrative is that it predictably “triggers” behavior because it’s about our identity, delivered in a familiar form and expresses meaning, most relevant to our identity, not truth. With this understanding, it is quite easy and reasonable to see why SM is such a powerful tool of influence in the West. It’s not though, as stated in the title, just about the SM. Without grounding what is expressed in SM in narrative as a tool of influence, it would have succeeded far less than it has and sadly, still does.

There is a great deal more to the world of employing influence. This topic though has been in our headlines though relentlessly. That’s why it prompted my mini-midweek-lesson regarding narrative. We must stop our Western obsession with only attacking one aspect of a problem/ threat. We must understand the entire problem and act appropriately. To date, we have no effective defensive or offensive plan to mitigate influence of any type. Delaying will only make matters worse!

Thanks to all and don’t hesitate to challenge if you disagree. Please, just do it in story form ;)

VP at Narratives Strategies, Influence, NATSEC

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