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Disinformation Is Not the Problem and Information Is Not the Solution

The “facts based approach” to domestic extremism proposed by the Biden administration suggests an awareness, shared by many, that disinformation has played a role in radicalization of the variety we saw on display at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. But disinformation is not the start point of radicalization.

Disinformation does not “work” on everyone. And yet the same factors that make an audience vulnerable to recruitment by ISIS make an audience vulnerable to recruitment by the Proud Boys. We ought to focus on understanding the factors that create an audience ripe for recruitment. Why are some people vulnerable to radicalization and others not? Why do some people believe and trust information that is demonstrably not based in fact?

The reason we are having trouble getting on top of disinformation is because we are mislabeling and therefor misunderstanding the phenomena. We are not dealing with simply wrong information. We are dealing with weaponized information in story form. If it wasn’t it wouldn’t be dangerous.

There is nothing inherently seductive about information, whether true or false. That is why we use storytelling. Stories play a special role in human cognition. Our brains are receptive to stories, especially stories about ourselves, or stories that we see ourselves in, or project ourselves into. And we are particularly receptive to stories that speak to our preferred identities especially when we feel our identity is under threat and the story gives us a way out – a way to respond to the threat.

The root cause of vulnerability to disinformation goes much deeper than amount or degree of exposure to false information. Narrative identity is what is at play.

Truth cannot effectively counter disinformation because raw data is not inherently influential. But if raw data (whether true or false) is storified, mythologized, narrated, then it can have influence. That is because stories tell us what we crave – they tell us meaning. Whether the information is true or false – stories tell us the meaning of the information.

This is not new phenomena. Humans have a long history of finding or creating meaning in the absence of facts. The Illiad, by Homer, for example, has had profound influence in western cultures even though it is not history. It is a myth. Nonetheless, the story of the heroic quest of the rugged individual gives people a way to frame their own challenges. It gives people a way to view their own battles with obstacles and hurdles in a heroic light. That frame of reference has been repeated for centuries and can be seen in modern popular culture in movies, novels, and in the way we understand our daily lives. The lack of truth value of the narrative is irrelevant to the meaning it imparts to our own experiences. Just because it is not true doesn’t make it less meaningful.

And when disinformation is well received, that is because the disinformation held deeper meaning for the audience than the truth.

An affective narrator speaks to two essential things:

  1. The meaning of the information, and
  2. The identity of the audience

Then meaning and identity are tied together to produce a story that tells what the information means to the audience. A story designed to influence will tell an audience what to make of the information, how to understand it, and how they fit in.

Just as the power of stories, myths, narratives, does not rely on truth, facts, or accuracy of information for its effect, so too if disinformation is storified, mythologized, narrated, it will give people a way to understand their own experiences in a way that is, in fact, impervious to the truth.

That is the problem we face. The problem is more profound than disinformation. We are dealing with weaponized narrative and a “facts-based approach” will prove impotent against it.

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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