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How We Must Battle Weaponized Narrative Wielded by Our Adversaries

Narrative directly impacts the threat environment whether in a physical conflict zone, or in recruitment to radicalization, or in the interference of foreign governments in domestic politics, or in undermining or promoting the capacity for international cooperation. Therefore, dominating the narrative space should be a national security priority. That is where non-state actors fight best. That is where foreign governments have proven effective in waging war against us without implementing kinetic force. That is precisely where our enemies dominate, and all our advanced hardware cannot create a win in the narrative space.

To dominate the narrative space we need to teach civilians about cognitive defense and we need to teach defense professionals how to conduct offensive Narrative Warfare.

That is the purpose of my new column for Homeland Security Today: Narrative and National Security – to help readers understand what narrative is, how it operates, how to defend against the weaponization of it, and how to wield it.

Narrative is not storytelling.

We generally don’t “tell” narratives. We tell the stories that are derived from narratives. The Heroic Journey is a narrative. All the movies, novels, memoirs, biographies that repeat the structure, content, meaning, and identity elements of the narrative are stories.

Stories don’t generally make direct reference to narratives. The reference is indirect, implied, and yet intimately familiar to those who share the same cultural foundation. We don’t consciously think about how to structure our stories because our cultural inheritance has determined that for us; our stories reflect the structure of our narratives. Our cultural narratives determine how we identify ourselves and how we process incoming information (the meaning we assigned to it and where it fits).

We don’t think about narratives in general. They operate on the level of assumption. And those assumptions leave our narratives vulnerable to manipulation.

Weaponized narrative hits our assumptions, not our rational thought.

Cognitive security requires that we turn our attention to that which we routinely assume. This is where our adversaries are hitting us hard.

Our assumptions are not the results of rational processes, nor should the challenge to them be.

Our adversaries understand this concept, have embraced it, and have incorporated strategic narratives across their operations. AQAP, ISIS, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, the Boogaloo Bois, Oath Keepers, Proud Boys effectively disseminate their brand and reinforce their ideologies through broad information and psychological operations to control the strategic narrative. By doing so, they determine the meaning of information and the action that results.

That is because people are generally not emotionally moved simply by observing the unfolding of events, and even if they are, they often don’t know what to do about it. But the representation of the unfolding of events has a power of its own. The representation of the unfolding of events, the narrative, ties events together in a way that imbues events with meaning. Narratives don’t just describe events; they show us how to understand them.

That is what distinguishes Narrative Warfare from Information Wars. Narrative Warfare is not a struggle for information; it is a struggle over the meaning of the information.

Influence will not be achieved by those with the most information or the most accurate information. It will be won by whoever determines the meaning of the information.

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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, affiliate faculty of the Center for Narrative Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, Professor, Global Security, 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 the forthcoming 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’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 in the role of identity in behavior, but she also recognizes that one can be constrained by society to accept a self-narrative that fits within existing cultural norms. Maan is also influenced by Jacques Derrida as well as Michel Foucault, as referenced in her article “Post-Colonial Practices and Narrative Nomads: Thinking Sikhism Beyond Metaphysics” (227). 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, further examines the role of narrative and power. Her work was also the focus of Representations of Internarrative Identity, a 2014 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 also been active in sharing her knowledge with a wider audience. In September of 2015, Maan began work on Narrative Strategies, an online blog dedicated to the application of strategic narrative to international affairs. That project formed the basis for a consultancy group of the same name, uniting military and academic experts in the cause of eradicating violent extremism around the world. ​ ​

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