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Arm the Sheep to Counter Weaponized Disinformation Campaigns

Responses to the type of cyber threat that aims to influence populations, to radicalize or to destabilize targets, generally fall into two broad categories. First and most popular are attempts to contain the information (or disinformation). This is what we hear most about: regulation, restriction, and kinetic targeting of adversarial propagandists. The second but too often over-looked security measure is to harden the targets themselves. It is the second option that interests me. What would it take to harden the targets of malign influence?

This debate has been going on since at least 500 B.C. in Athens. Plato wanted to protect the public from influences that arouse passions rather than reason by physically keeping the influences at bay. Aristotle, on the other hand, suggested that the materials we are tempted to censor ought to be our textbooks – that there are essential things to learn from the very materials that worry us.

Again, I situate myself in the later camp. I am suggesting that we should do in the cognitive realm what we do in the physical when we are protecting civilian populations from kinetic harm: Arm the sheep.

How do we arm civilians faced with psychological threat? Some have suggested teaching critical reasoning en masse. Others have suggested methods of tracing sources of (dis) information so audiences can understand the intent of the “messages.” But those suggestions make a critical mistake about the nature of the threat. They assume the threat is disinformation and therefore revert to information security tactics even in the psychological realm. Disinformation itself is not the threat.

Our adversaries are engineering the way information is being received. They are not simply disseminating “alternative facts”; they are providing an alternative way of understanding the facts. They are demonstrating an alternative way to give meaning to the facts.

That is the threat we face. The threat is a manufactured and weaponized narrative frame that undermines audience identity and meaning-making capacities.

Why does disinformation stick even when it has been proven false? The answer is because the disinformation is more meaningful to the audience than the truth. The new narrative does something for the audience. It fills a need. This is more easily accomplished when there is a disconnect between inherited narratives and lived experience.

In the physical realm, while most revolutionary theories tend to view violence as a necessary means to an end, the violence of terrorism transcends its instrumental utility. Terrorists use violence against certain targets to terrorize witnesses; the physical victims are only collateral damage to the real psychological goal of terrorizing the living.

The same is true in the psychological realm. The goal of disinformation is not simply to get the audience to believe something that is false. The goal is to affect the mental mapping of the audience by encouraging mis-identification. Once that is achieved the terrorists’ work is done. The audience will carry on and categorize incoming information according to the new narrative frame and will act accordingly in such a way that again undermines the values that have held together their very identities. The cycle reinforces the weaponized narrative.

How do we prevent this? By getting clear with ourselves and with the public about the nature of the threat and how we are being targeted. The audience needs to know what their vulnerabilities are, what a narrative attack is, and what it looks and feels like. That information we want to censor is the textbook.

Defeat Terrorists by Dominating the Narrative Space

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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