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Monday, June 5, 2023

COLUMN: NATO’s Narrative Needs

Information warfare is not the fight we are in. We are dealing with weaponized narratives. We are engaged in Narrative Warfare, not information warfare.

The central thesis in a recent publication by the Head of Communications Analysis at NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe is that NATO countries should adopt and project a unified definition of strategic communications that does not hinder itself with the type of prohibitions that the American military has regarding domestic influence. The author proposes a definition of strategic communications that distinguishes influence from propaganda and then considers whether or not NATO countries should engage or not engage in influence on our domestic audiences. She thinks we should.

My argument is that NATO’s Head of Communications Analysis has misidentified the primary type of conflict that NATO countries face. And in the fight we face now, strategic communications is not an auxiliary part of kinetic conflict. It is the other way around. Kinetic conflict serves the real center of gravity.

That is the heart of my analysis: the center of gravity in the fights we face now is the narrative space. The ancient truth that war is ultimately a psychological endeavor has been augmented by recent cognitive science. What we now know about cognitive processing demonstrates that the deeper foundation of the psychological is the narrative foundation of unconscious information processing. Weaponized narratives are attacking that deeper level of cognitive processing. That is what Narrative Warfare is. That is the fight we are in.

Let me begin with the faulty theoretical assumptions made in the aforementioned analysis because they are instructive as well:

1. The author makes the distinction between informing and influencing but does not address educating nor make the distinction between informing and educating. That is problematic because education does not result from mere information sharing. I agree with the author that “informing” is inadequate, but for a different reason. My reason is that informing requires audience familiarity (conscious familiarity) with the concepts that they are being informed about.

Informing an audience, for example, that the appropriate action to take when sighting unattended baggage at an airport is to report it assumes that they know what they are looking at. In the case of “See something, say something,” that assumption is probably correct. But what if the audience does not know what they are looking at? Simply informing an audience that if X occurs, they should do Y, assumes that they know what X is and how to identify it when they see it. Most importantly, it assumes conscious knowledge. This assumption completely ignores identity triggers, unconscious processes, and motivations.

The public knows what an unattended bag at the airport looks like. From there we can inform them about what action to take when they identify one. In such a case, informing is adequate to influence behavior. But does the public recognize adversarial influence designed to undermine their trust in their government? Do they know what it looks like? Feels like? Sounds like? When faced with weaponized narratives, simply informing the public is inadequate. In this case, cognitive security requires education, not just information.

Educating domestic audiences, including militaries and law enforcement, about the way human brains process incoming information provides a prophylactic effect that makes domestic audiences less vulnerable to adversarial influence. Educating is doing something, but it is not doing influence. This leads to my second point of disagreement.

2. I don’t think militaries should engage in domestic influence. They have enough to do in their own lane. Educators should educate our domestic populations and militaries should not lead that effort. It should be a civilian-led effort. To be clear, as a civilian educator, I do not teach people what to think. And contrary to popular belief, I don’t even teach them how to think. I teach them what thinking is, how it works, and the enormous role that unconscious assumptions play in cognitive processing.

3. My third point of contention is that the author proposes a new definition of propaganda as a “co-produced strategic process of deception.” But meaning is always a process of co-production; propaganda is no exception. The new proposed definition does not distinguish propaganda from other forms of meaning-making.

The author says that “Inform, not Influence” is based on flawed logic and refers to Christopher Paul’s House Armed Services Committee testimony that there is no such thing as value-free information and that information passes on the values and attitudes of the speaker. That is trivially true. It’s true, but so what?

That is a true statement, but it does not go far enough. The deeper issue is that audiences are not blank slates. There is no such thing as an empty-headed audience. People are not empty heads into which information can be deposited and be categorized in the same presumed manner the speaker categorizes the information. To be clear, I don’t disagree with Mr. Paul; my point is that the problem is far deeper than speaker values.

Audiences are socialized within cultural narratives that they have internalized and those narratives will determine how incoming information is processed. That processing happens before conscious thought.

4. The most foundational erroneous premise is that “a unified approach to communications is vital, if NATO is to properly compete and contest within information warfare.” This statement misidentifies the fight we are in. Information warfare is not the fight we are in. We are dealing with weaponized narratives. We are engaged in Narrative Warfare, not information warfare.

NATO’s Head of Communication Analysis proposes this new definition of propaganda:

“A deliberate, systemic, and co-produced strategic process of deception to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior, aimed at achieving a response that furthers the intent of the propagandist.”

So, propaganda = intent to deceive. But what if the communication is unintentionally deceptive?

If the principles of narrative identity are understood, the distinctions between propaganda/influence/strategic communications/information become less important because something much more fundamental is at work.

Shifting definitions is just shifting definitions. Let’s get to the foundational problem with the analysis provided by NATO’s Head of Information Analysis because we cannot solve the problem from within the same conceptual apparatus that created the problem in the first place.

We need to get clear about the kind of fight we are in. Information warfare is conflict over information and that assumption gets us thinking about censorship in all manner of lethal variety. But that is not the fight we are in, so that is the wrong tactic serving the wrong strategy in the wrong fight.

We are in Narrative Warfare whether we know it or not. And so far we have been participating by default. We are participating by being the object of narrative attacks. In many cases, our own information has been used against us.

While we busy ourselves redefining terms in an antiquated conceptual system, our adversaries with less than an eighth of the hard power capacity of the United States, have been dominating the center of gravity – the narrative space. Dominating the narrative space has nothing to do with having the most information, the most accurate information, or the most secure information. It involves determining the meaning of the information. Having lots of secure accurate information doesn’t do us any good if our adversaries get to decide what it means.

Ajit Maan
Ajit Maan, Ph.D. writes the Narrative & National Security column for Homeland Security Today featuring her original work and work by guest experts in narrative strategy focused on identifying active narratives, who is behind them, and what strategies they are deploying to manipulate and muddy facts to the detriment of America. She is founder and CEO of the award-winning think-and-do-tank, Narrative Strategies LLC, Adjunct Professor at Joint Special Operations University, Professor of Politics and Global Security, Faculty at the Center for the Future of War, and member of the Brain Trust of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative at Arizona State University. She is also author of seven books including Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, Narrative Warfare, and Plato’s Fear. Maan's breakthrough theory of internarrative identity came in 1997; she published a book by the same name in 1999 which was released in its second edition in 2010 (with the addition of the subtitle Placing the Self). Internarrative identity deals with one’s sense of identity as expressed in personal narrative, connecting the formation of identity with one assigns meaning to one’s life experiences. Maan’s theories are influenced by Paul Ricoeur’s writings in narrative identity theory, and she cites several of his works in her book (Maan, Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self 90). The connection between the interpretation of personal narrative in relation to the larger social group seems to be a key factor in the work of both Maan and Ricoeur. She states that “Following Ricoeur, I’ve argued that who one is and what one will do will be determined by the story one sees oneself as a part of. Going further than Ricoeur, I have suggested that a genuinely imaginative theory of narrative identity would be inclusive of alternatively structured narratives” (Maan, Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self 71-72). This seems to indicate that Maan believes that identity influences behavior, but she also recognizes that one can be constrained by society to accept a self-narrative that fits within existing cultural norms. After establishing herself through her work on Internarrative Identity, Maan has now turned her attention to the analysis of narrative as a means of understanding (and combating) terrorist recruitment tactics. Her 2014 book, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, examines the scripts perpetuated by a wide range of terrorist organizations while also making important interdisciplinary connections between studies in the humanities and current world events (a workbook companion to the text was published in 2018). She collaborated with the late Brigadier General Amar Cheema on the edited volume titled Soft Power on Hard Problems: Strategic Influence in Irregular Warfare, published in 2016. Maan's 2018 book, titled Narrative Warfare, is a collection of articles examining the topic of weaponized narrative; her 2020 book, Plato's Fear, examines the relationship between narrative and power. Her work was the focus of Representations of Internarrative Identity, a 2014 multi-authored scholarly monograph dedicated to the exploration of Internarrative Identity through diverse fields of study and from international perspectives. In addition to her contributions to academia, Maan has been active in sharing her knowledge with a wider audience thereby uniting military and academic experts in the cause of eradicating violent extremism around the world.

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