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.