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Thursday, February 29, 2024

COLUMN: Predictive Elements of Contagious Stories

ISIS lost one loosely affiliated Kashmiri militant, but they gained psychological advantage by using an unforeseen event to insert a weaponized story.

It is a mistake to assume that the contagion of stories depends upon the validity of truth.

Ideas spread – go viral – in story form. Ideas themselves, even facts, have no inherent persuasive power, not until they are storied. Stories propel events that have led to war, to election wins and losses, immunization rates, and insurgencies.

That is because stories influence behavior, both individual and collective. If we underestimate the role of stories to influence behavior, we would be overlooking a central mechanism of social change, whether the change is for better or for worse. Predictive analysis requires narrative and story analysis. By studying the stories people live by, we can predict, prepare for, and potentially decrease the damage of a crisis. If we can predict how a story will spread and affect behavior, we can intervene.

A contagious story, whether true or false, has the potential to change how masses of people worldwide interpret events and make decisions.

Narratives are precipitating factors. We can predict contagion rates by examining how well (or not) a story on the ground matches up with the cultural narrative. If the story and the narrative cohere, the story will resonate and be accepted as “just the way things are.” If the story and the narrative do not cohere, then the audience is vulnerable to a replacement story that solves the disjunct. If an adversarial story fills the vacuum by providing the replacement story, the effect will be psychologically and then socially destabilizing.

When people experience a dissonance between the cultural narrative they inherited, and the stories that connect them to it, they are psychologically vulnerable to weaponized stories. If the weaponized story is contagious, the very fabric of cultural foundation (the narrative) is at risk.

So, what makes stories contagious? Two things essentially: they provide meaning to events, and they attach to identity.

One way that stories provide meaning, a method often overlooked by narrative analysts, is through structure. Story structure can predict contagion rate. Even when events do not occur as a logical sequentially ordered chain of events, stories that present them that way imbue the events with a certain type of meaning. And they do so for a reason. The reason is to imply causality even if there is none. Just because something happened after something else does not mean that the first event caused the second event, but that is the implication. The implied meaning of the representation of events sequentially ordered is to assign causality.

The Latin phrase for this logical fallacy is post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this therefore because of this). If you are with me this far, consider the implications of using this structure to provide meaning, and trigger identity, with this example:

On Friday May 10, 2019, two things happened in this order: The Indian army sent soldiers into Amshipora, Kashmir, to apprehend a single Kashmiri militant. That militant and one Indian soldier were killed in the encounter. That is what happened. Those are the facts. But later the same day, ISIS’s Amaq News Agency announced the establishment of a new province, “Wilayah of Hind,” and added that the province had come under attack.

The ISIS announcement implied that the Indian army attack was a result of the establishment of the province. But there is no such province. That is fiction. And it is a fiction that did not appear until after the encounter in Kashmir. The ISIS communication strategy was to seize the opportunity of an attack that they could not have foreseen, insert a fictional event in front of it, and thereby use the fact of a physical attack to their advantage by attributing the attack to the establishment of a fictional story that implies territorial gain.

ISIS lost one loosely affiliated Kashmiri militant, but they gained psychological advantage by using an unforeseen event to insert a weaponized story that explains how the events on the ground cohere with the cultural narrative of the target audience.

To fully understand how this works, it imperative to notice that ISIS did not engage in counter-narrative. Their announcement was consistent with a comprehensive offensive psychological strategy. The strategy is not to address this regional conflict in the terms of the conflict itself, and then take a side and defend it; rather, the strategy is to redefine the conflict as a small part of something larger.

The mythological province is designed for the ears of ISIS financiers and for an audience that is recruitable primarily through appeal to defense of territory and, more foundationally, the defense of the identity that is associated with the physical territory. By reframing the regional conflict as a small instance of a global Salafi-jihadism, ISIS put a global brand on a regional conflict by swallowing up the conflict and re-defining it. The story is contagious and fits into a comprehensive and effective Narrative Warfare strategy that is impervious to facts.

Ajit Maan
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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