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Weaponized Narrative: The New Battlespace



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Weaponized Narrative:
The New Battlespace
March 21, 2017
Weaponized Narrative:
The New Battlespace
We are at an inection point in history. A new battlespace and a
new civilization are being born.
This White Paper is a rst rough draft of that story.
With our two directorates – Research and Operations – The
Weaponized Narrative Initiative is an early attempt to:
● Understand what’s going on.
● Do something about it.
Brad Allenby
Joel Garreau
Founding co-directors
The Weaponized Narrative Initiative
21 March 2017
Opinions expressed in this White Paper are those of the authors alone,
and not those of any organizations with which they are or have been afliated.
The Weaponized Narrative Initiative is part of
the Center on the Future of War – a partnership between
Arizona State University and the independent think tank New America.
For permission to reprint any of the articles in this White Paper,
please contact
Dear Reader:
This White Paper represents the beginning of an important dialog for
the United States, and for all those countries that believe in the value
of rationality, responsibility, and some form of “life, liberty and the
pursuit of happiness”. While each of these pieces has been selected
to represent an important element of this dialog, we do not pretend to
yet have a coherent integrated perspective on weaponized narrative.
What we can say is what the headlines remind us of every day:
weaponized narrative is real, and it is a very effective form of
asymmetric warfare when directed against the West. It presents
challenges not just to military and security organizations, but to civil
society, and to democratic principles and institutions.
It is a long-standing axiom of military strategy that the adversary
always gets a vote, and adversaries of the United States, and the
modern West, have voted for weaponized narrative. We cannot
control that. But we can control how we respond, how we defend
and – more important – how we build a future validating that which
all those who have gone before us have poured into building this
country. Here we stand. We can do no other.
Table of Contents
Weaponized Narrative Is the New Battlespace: And the U.S. is in the unaccustomed
position of being seriously behind its adversaries, by Brad Allenby and Joel Garreau. ........5
Attacking Who We Are as Humans, by Joel Garreau. ..................................10
What Is Weaponized Narrative? ..................................................14
The End of Enlightenment 1.0: Why Weaponized Narrative Won’t Go Away,
by Brad Allenby. ..............................................................15
The Trust Crisis: Whose “Facts”?, By Daniel Rothenberg. .............................20
“Truth”: Why Spock Is Such an Unusual Character, By Jon Herrmann. ...................24
Marines: Tell It to The, by Kurt M. Sanger and Brad Allenby. ..........................28
Strategy: Thinking Forward, by Jeff Kubiak. ........................................31
Defending: Awareness and Protection, by Scott Ruston. ..............................36
Towards an Adequate Response, by Herbert Lin. .....................................41
Weaponized Narrative Is the
New Battlespace: And the U.S. is in
the unaccustomed position of being
seriously behind its adversaries.1
By Brad Allenby and Joel Garreau
Conventional military dominance is still critical to the superpower status of the United States.
But even in a military sense, it is no longer enough: if an American election can be controlled by
an adversarial power, then stealth aircraft and special forces are not the answer. With lawmakers
poised to authorize $160 million to counter Russian “fake news” and disinformation, and the CIA
and the Congress examining meddling in the U.S. election and democracies around the world, it’s
time to see weaponized narrative for what it is: a deep threat to national security.
Weaponized narrative seeks to undermine an opponent’s civilization, identity, and will by
generating complexity, confusion, and political and social schisms. It can be used tactically, as
part of explicit military or geopolitical conict; or strategically, as a way to reduce, neutralize, and
defeat a civilization, state, or organization. Done well, it limits or even eliminates the need for
armed force to achieve political and military aims.
The efforts to muscle into the affairs of the American presidency, Brexit, the Ukraine, the Baltics,
and NATO reect a shift to a “post-factual” political and cultural environment that is vulnerable to
weaponized narrative. This begs three deeper questions:
● How global is this phenomenon?
Are the underlying drivers temporary or systemic?
● What are the implications for an American military used to technological dominance?
Far from being simply a U.S. or U.K. phenomenon, shifts to “post-factualism” can be seen in
Poland, Hungary, Turkey, France, and the Philippines, among other democracies. Russia, whose
own political culture is deeply post-factual and indeed post-modern, is now ably constructing
ironic, highly cynical, weaponized narratives that were effective in the Ukrainian invasion, and are
now destabilizing the Baltic states and the U.S. election process.
Such a large and varied shift to weaponized narrative implies that the enablers are indeed systemic.
One fundamental underpinning – often overlooked – is the accelerating volume and velocity of
information. Cultures, institutions, and individuals are, among many other things, information-
processing mechanisms. As they become overwhelmed with information complexity, the tendency
to retreat into simpler narratives becomes stronger.
Under this stress, cultures fragment. Institutions are stretched until they become ineffective or
even dysfunctional. Individuals who dene their identity primarily through the state – such as
Americans, Russians, Chinese, or Europeans – retreat to a mythic Golden Age nationalism, while
those who prioritize cultural and religious bonds retreat to fundamentalism.
Narrative is as old as tribes. Humans are pattern-seeking storytelling animals. We cannot endure
an absence of meaning. Rather than look up at the distribution of lights in the night sky and deal
with randomness, we will eagerly connect those dots and adorn them with the most elaborate
even poetic – tales of heroes and princesses and bears and dippers. We have a hard-wired need for
myth. Narrative is basic to what it means to be human.
What’s new is the extraordinary power of today’s weaponized narrative. It attacks our group
identity – our sense of who we are, our privilege
of not being identied as “other.” The rise of the
Connected Age allows attacks that tear down old
identities that have bound us together. But it also
allows the creation of narratives that dene the new
differences between “us” and “them” that are worth
ghting for.
Weaponized narrative comes at a critical juncture.
The speed of upheaval in our lives is unprecedented.
It will be lled by something. We are desperate for
something to hang on to.
By offering cheap passage through a complex world,
weaponized narrative furnishes emotional certainty
at the cost of rational understanding. The emotionally satisfying decision to accept a weaponized
narrative — to believe, to have faith — inoculates cultures, institutions, and individuals against
counterarguments and inconvenient facts.
This departure from rationality opens such ring-fenced belief communities to manipulation and
their societies to attack. These communities can be strengthened through media tools and messages
that reinforce the narrative — crucially, by demonizing outsiders. Trust is extended only to those
who believe, leaving other institutional and social structures to erode.
In the hands of professionals, the powerful emotions of anger and fear can be used to control
adversaries, limit their options, and disrupt their functional capabilities. This is a unique form of
soft power. In such campaigns, facts are not necessary because – contrary to the old memes of the
Enlightenment – truth does not necessarily prevail. It can be overwhelmed with constantly repeated
and replenished falsehood. Especially powerful are falsehoods or simplications that the target
cohort has been primed to believe by the underlying narratives with which they are also being
It’s a self-reinforcing loop. This process was clear in Ukraine, in Brexit, in creation of alt-right and
other far right and left communities in many countries, and in the American presidential election.
All of these campaigns combine indigenous factors with known or suspected Russian deployment
of weaponized narrative, achieving signicant benets for Russia with low risk of conventional
military responses by the West. Indeed, the response by America, NATO, and European states has
been confused, sporadic, and ineffective.
In the short term, then, weaponized narrative challenges existing Western military and security
institutions grown comfortable in their post-Cold War conventional-force dominance. At
least one major adversary now has a capability – and indeed a new battlespace – that is not
just unfamiliar. It is one where institutional, historical, and cultural factors put the U.S. at a
signicant disadvantage.
But the longer-term challenges are even more profound: Post-factual politics weaken
democratic governance. It enables what might be called post-modern soft authoritarianism. Such
authoritarianism is not absolute in the traditional Nazi or Stalinist sense. Rather – much like
Putin’s Russia today – it relies on a sophisticated combination of managed public expectations,
a tenuous but real political legitimacy, and the division of state power among otherwise isolated
communities. These then become easy to balance against each other, the more readily to be
dominated by authoritarian personalities and institutions.
The mechanism, again, depends on weaponized narrative. Old authoritarianism too often
required large security forces, violent repression of citizens, and absolute control of information
(the Big Lie). How much simpler to engineer human communities so that the expensive and
messy process of explicit authoritarianism can be replaced by the far gentler – and more effective
– mechanism of narrative.
History is replete with examples. For centuries in Europe, the Church’s narrative of the Great Chain
of Being kept the peace. Rebellion simply lay outside the reality within which most people lived.
It is certainly not clear that weaponized narrative necessarily leads to soft authoritarianism. But it is
at least plausible that the advance of inclusive democracy and universalist Western values has been
reversed. Authoritarian organizations and states are more adaptive in this new post-factual political
environment. Weaponized narratives can only increase the possibility of soft authoritarian outcomes
if they are not understood and engaged.
At any rate, it is certainly a reasonable hypothesis that the Enlightenment age of the individual –
the core to any democratic system – is clearly ending. Unprecedented complexity, and information
volumes and velocities, simply mean that individual cognitive capabilities – no matter how brilliant
– are overwhelmed. Power shifts towards those who understand and deploy narrative, be they large
states, large corporations, or religious and cultural communities. Power leaks away from the naïve
faith in individual rationality that has characterized the last three centuries in the West.
What this may mean for military and security organizations committed to democratic states – or,
indeed, for the United States as a whole – is not entirely clear. But much of what has previously
been assumed to be xed and unchanging is turning out to be, in fact, unpredictable, unforeseeable,
and random. And the rate of change is accelerating.
It is futile to wish this change away. Instead, we must recognize weaponized narrative, to defend
against it, and to put it to our own uses. Our societies and institutions must adapt, or pass into
history alongside others that did not.
Brad Allenby and Joel Garreau are the founding co-directors of
The Weaponized Narrative Initiative, a part of the Center on the
Future of War, a partnership between Arizona State University
and the independent think tank New America.
1 This article rst appeared on 3 January 2017 in The Atlantic’s Defense One – the web magazine for “national
security professionals, stakeholders, citizens, senior leaders in Washington, commanders abroad and next-
generation thinkers far from the political scrum.”
new-battlespace/134284/?oref=d-river . Accessed 4 March 2017.
Attacking Who We Are as Humans
By Joel Garreau
The best storytellers have been getting the choicest pieces of meat around the camp re for a
very long time.
There are reasons for that. And these explain why weaponized narrative is such a devastating
Humans are pattern-seeking storytelling animals. That’s how we make sense of chaos. We
cannot endure an absence of meaning. Rather than look up at the distribution of lights in the
night sky and deal with randomness, we will eagerly connect those dots and adorn them with the
most elaborate – even poetic – tales of heroes and princesses and bears and dippers. We have a
hard-wired need for story. Narrative is basic to what it means to be human.
This is the extraordinary power of today’s weaponized narrative. It attacks our sense of how the
world works. It also attacks our group identity – our sense of who we are, our privilege of not
being identied as “other.” Weaponized narrative specically attacks our identities that dene
the differences between “us” and “them” worth ghting for.
Language is not what sets humans apart. Long before the rise of modern Homo sapiens, “Many
animals and human species could previously say, ‘Careful! A lion!’ ” notes Yuval Noah Harari in
his Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.2
What makes us human is story. “As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of
entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled,” says Harari.
Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the rst time 70,000 years ago when the
“Cognitive Revolution” marked the start of upright apes spreading out of Africa. “Thanks to the
Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, ‘The lion is the guardian spirit
of our tribe.’ This ability to speak about ction is the most unique feature of Sapiens language,”
says Harari. “You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him
limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.”
Story has enabled us to imagine things collectively. We can weave common myths from
the Bible’s Genesis story to America’s “Shining City on a Hill” story. Such myths give us
the unprecedented ability to cooperate exibly in large numbers. “That’s why Sapiens rule
the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research
laboratories,” notes Harari.
Historically, groups competing for territory and food were of necessity small. For everyone to
know all the others well enough to cohere, the unit couldn’t be much bigger than 150 individuals,
research shows. (A U.S. Army “company” is about that size to this day.)
Yet humans gured out how to create cities and empires and armies because strangers can
cooperate successfully if they believe in common myths – from capitalism to the Caliphate.
Binding myths are precisely what weaponized narrative attacks.
Humans biologically need purpose and meaning as surely as they need food. There is striking
evidence that folk who achieve a sense of purpose (“eudemonic well-being”) live longer,
have a lower risk of heart disease and stroke, sleep better, and have better sex. “If people are
living longer, there’s got to be some biology
underpinning to that,” says Steven Cole of UCLA,
who has long studied how loneliness and stress
increases the expression of genes that cause
inammation, which can lead to Alzheimer’s
and cancer. “There may be something saying
‘be less frightened, or less worried, anxious or
uncertain….’ Things that you value can override
things that you fear,” he says.3
Lead to trust little of what their leaders say,
little their intelligence services say, little their
professional media and fact checkers say,
and little scientists say, individuals are being
physically attacked. This is weaponized narrative at work.
As change accelerates, we all feel the ground moving beneath the feet of our children and
jobs and communities. Any sane primate, when the ground moves beneath her feet, looks for
something apparently solid to hang on to. Anybody will attract attention who offers apparently
simple explanations, powerfully expounded.
Our existing stories are pretty robust – “Give me your huddled masses…” is a good example.
But any story breaks down if it gets too complex. With clever attacks on our foundational
narratives we can get driven back to simpler worlds – where we focus on how people are not like
“Us,” and therefore should be attacked.
The phrase “whose story wins” originated with the writings of John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt of
RAND two decades ago.4 They foresaw narrative as central to the future of netwars. History has
proven them prescient. “Challenges to identity are perceived as existential threats,” notes Rhonda
Zaharana of American University.5 The struggle for identity lies at the nexus of war and peace.
Only now has technology allowed narrative attacks to come so fast and ferocious as to
overwhelm defenses. Violence over world views is to be feared. History shows battles of
fundamental narratives can lead to hundred-year wars.
Those who crave power tomorrow are deeply studying the events in the United States today,
and thinking about how they will craft their turn to try. The stories they will tell as they stake
out their respective turfs will compete: The stories will be about what is dying and about what is
being born — whether we are witnessing the end of something or the beginning of something.
Those who succeed in telling the most convincing stories will win. The battle between those
narratives is our new permanent condition.
Let us remember one thing:
It has been argued that weaponized narrative can only destroy.
Maybe. But it’s banal to note that breaking is easier than building. Story, as the basis of what it
means to be human, is much more powerful than that.
We have existence proof that if you have a good story, twelve apostles, four evangelists and a St.
Paul, you can change history.
You really can.
Joel Garreau, founding co-director of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative, is Professor of
Law, Culture and Values at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.
Previously, as a long-time reporter and editor with The Washington Post, he was a professional
non-ction storyteller frequently nominated for the Pulitzer.
2 Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. New York: HarperCollins, 2015, pages 24-25.
3 “Why am I here: Having a purpose to what you do could help you live longer – and better,” by Teal Burrell,
New Scientist, 28 January 2017, page 30.
life-how-a-sense-of-purpose-can-keep-you-healthy/ accessed 16 February 2017.
4 The Advent Of Netwar, by John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1996. accessed 10 March 2017. Also available in print form.
5 “Reassessing ‘Whose Story Wins’: The Trajectory of Identity Resilience in Narrative Contests,” by R.S.
Zaharana. International Journal of Communication (10). Los Angeles: USC Annenberg, pages 4407-4438. accessed 18 February 2017.
What is Weaponized Narrative?
Weaponized narrative is warfare in the information environment – using words and
images rather than bombs and bullets. The victims are truth, reason, and reection.
Against the United States, for example, it aims to weaken society by attacking
fundamental agreements on what it means to be an American.
How Does Weaponized Narrative Work?
A fast-moving information deluge is the ideal battleground for this kind of warfare – for
guerrillas and terrorists as well as adversary states. A rehose of narrative attacks gives
the targeted populace little time to process and evaluate. It is cognitively disorienting and
confusing – especially if the opponents barely realize what’s hitting them. Opportunities
abound for emotional manipulation undermining the opponent’s will to resist.
How Do You Recognize Weaponized Narratives?
Efforts by Russia to meddle in the elections of Western democracies – including France
and Germany as well as the United States – are in the news. The Islamic State’s
weaponized narrative has been highly effective. Even political movements have caught
on, as one can see in the rise of the alt-right in the United States and Europe. In short,
many different types of adversaries have found weaponized narratives advantageous in
this battlespace. Additional recent targets have included the Ukraine, Brexit, NATO, the
Baltics, and even the Pope.
The End of Enlightenment 1.0:
Why Weaponized Narrative Won’t Go Away
By Brad Allenby
The United States is uniquely susceptible to weaponized narrative. That’s because the U.S. is the
world’s leading Enlightenment power, founded on the principles of applied rationality, balance of
power, and individual rights voiced by such philosophers as Voltaire, Locke, and Montesquieu.
The Founding Fathers – Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Adams - were luminaries of the
Enlightenment. Its culture and strength, and the soft power of American exceptionalism – “the
Shining City on the Hill” – are thus uniquely susceptible to the passing of the original version of
the Enlightenment. Or, to put it in terms that some adversaries might embrace, bringing down
the curtain on Enlightenment version 1.0 is the ultimate form of asymmetric warfare.
After all, empires weaken and fall not because they are overwhelmed by superior outside force,
but because they fail internally, and are thus at some point easily taken down by challengers. So
with some states: for example, the Russians deployed weaponized narrative successfully against
the Ukrainians because that state was already split, with the eastern portions being culturally
inclined towards Russia even as the western portions inclined towards the West.
Similarly, Russian efforts in the American election were successful, and similar efforts in Europe
may well bring continuing success, not because the Russians have created social conict and
fragmentation, but because they are adeptly taking advantage of existing conditions. “The fault,
dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves . . .”.
Respond as the U.S. will in the short term with effective countermeasures, in the long term it will
be vulnerable to weaponized narrative, unless and until fundamental weaknesses in American
political and social culture are addressed. If they are not, failure is likely. And such weaknesses
cannot be addressed until the U.S. gures out how to transition to a new, more complex and less
ordered Enlightenment 2.0 while maintaining its core values.
So what is different now? Isn’t this just another form of hysteria? No, because a number of
trends are coming together to create a unique historical period. This allows weaponized narrative
to become a weapon of choice against superbly but standardly armed adversaries – most
obviously, the United States. These trends include but are not limited to:
Accelerating and unpredictable change across the entire frontier of technology;
Rejection of the universalist Western values that formed the basis of the post-WWII
world order;
Erosion of the nation-state model of international governance;
Democratization of large-scale violence;
Fundamentalism rising in response to unprecedented complexity; and
Conict explicitly undermining civilizations being adopted strategically by China
and Russia.6
Unpredictable and accelerating change has destabilized individual psychologies, institutions, and
cultures. Predictably, folk ee to fundamentalisms of all kinds. Fundamentalism is particularly
attractive because it provides a powerful narrative, and thus a powerful identity, with which to
oppose overwhelming complexity. Moreover, fundamentalism provides ready-made answers that
need not be tested against Enlightenment-style rationality. Indeed, the rise of such communities
are existence proof of the decline of the Enlightenment 1.0 model.
States founded on Enlightenment principles of democracy, openness, and “life, liberty and the
pursuit of happiness,” are highly vulnerable to such pressures. If their governance tasks become
more complex and subtle but their personnel, stakeholders, and voters become more simplistic,
that’s a failure mode.
Institutions, particularly in the United States and Europe, tend to be justied by explicit applied
rationality. They develop and deploy fact-based policies within strong ethical structures.
They are thus endangered by any signicant move towards a post-factual, morally relativistic
environment. For the U.S. military, this is a fundamental challenge, as the essay on the Marines
in this White Paper suggests.
Geopolitical shifts have augmented such challenges. For example, after World War II few
questioned the ethical principles of the victors – Europe and especially the United States. These
were enshrined in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. But the
Western “universal values” appearing in that document have turned out not to be so universal
after all: Russia, China, and a number of Islamic entities now reject them.
This rejection of a dominant global model is also seen on the institutional side. Private military
companies, large multinationals and non-governmental organizations of all stripes increasingly
function as independent power centers. Self-dening religious communities claim ideological
and temporal power in many guises. Especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East,
large areas of the world increasingly lapse into what Sean McFate calls “durable disorder” – a
neomedieval devil’s brew of religions, ideologies, clans, governments, armed activists, and
various internal and external powers.7
In short, commitment to larger state and social identities is weakening. The state-based
Westphalian system of international law and institutions – while still dominant in many ways – is
failing. It is being replaced by a pastiche of private, public, non- and quasi-governmental, and ad
hoc institutions, power centers, and interests. Geopolitics is growing ever more complex even as
the societies and institutions that must manage them are retreating into more simplistic narratives.
The current environment is the chaotic combination of unpredictable and accelerating evolution
in all these domains. Russia strikes out with weaponized narrative even as it fails internally.
China is determined to rise against the reigning superpower, the United States. The Islamic
State is only the most aggressive and well-known face of advancing global fundamentalism.
None of these trends look likely to reverse absent
some sort of global collapse. Each outbreak of
fundamentalism, or nativistic nationalism, reects
its own idiosyncratic environment. Yet the tides are
global and inclusive.
It is not that the original Enlightenment has
failed. Indeed, the problem is the opposite: the
Enlightenment – with its emphasis on scientic observation and experiment, and applied
rationality – has succeeded spectacularly. It has led to a world of economic, technological and
population growth that is accelerating change. It is the complexity of this success that we are
nding so challenging.
A new world is being born. It is post-factual, post-modern, complex and unpredictable,
privileging narratives and emotion over applied rationality and fact-based policy. In doing so,
it makes obsolete the society that built it, and in which all of us have grown up. Whether this
evolution is historically positive or negative is not knowable; indeed, it at least in part up to us,
and our responses to this new age, to determine.
Recall that the birth of what would become the Enlightenment was viewed as a catastrophe by
popes and kings, too. The rise of the printing press circa 1450 – the foundational revolutionary
means of storing, sharing and distributing our ideas that led rst to the Reformation, and then the
Enlightenment, and then democracy and science itself – may seem an unalloyed good from the
perspective of half a millennium. But its privileging of bottom-up individual decision-making
and thinking over top-down authority was a wild creed-fueled ride that bloodied much of Europe.
If ours is a similar inection point in history, we must prepare. It is easy to focus on what is
dying as the role of scientic truth erodes in favor of narrative truth. It is child’s play to imagine
how any complex system can fall apart – that’s lazy dystopianism.
What we must do is understand what is being born. And create new narratives to capture this
new reality. Is this Enlightenment ver. 2.0?
The very dawn of a new cultural age speaks to the success of applied rationality and of science,
of human rights and values, of less violence and more institutional governance, and of innovation
and creativity. In spite of those post-modernists who are so sunk in cynicism and snark that they
can appreciate nothing above their own false pseudo-intellectual pretensions, and their ability to
drag others down with them, it speaks to human progress. It is a strange form of false pride to
assume the dystopian alternative, that we have somehow peaked, and that all that remains before
us is tragedy and tears. Weaponized narrative is indeed a challenge, especially to institutions
optimized for the conditions of the original Enlightenment. But there is a future to build, and
what it will look like is at least in part up to us, and our responses to this new age, to determine.
Incremental and immediate responses to weaponized narrative attacks are required and
important, but completely inadequate alone, even if the U.S. military is dedicated to preservation
of the Constitution and of the nation.
For all of us, it is equally critical to understand, and try to manage, the transition of existing
institutions, capabilities, and values to the completely different world that is even now growing
around us.
Anything less is dereliction of duty.
Brad Allenby, founding co-director of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative, is Lincoln Professor
of Engineering and Ethics, and President’s Professor of Civil, Environmental, and Sustainable
Engineering and of Law, at Arizona State University. He served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers. His latest books include Future Conict and Emerging Technologies.
6 This is obviously a gross oversimplication. Those who are interested might begin by perusing Rosa Brooks,
2016 , How Everything Became War and War Became Everything (Simon & Schuster, New York); Lawrence
Freedman, 2013, Strategy (Oxford University Press, Oxford); Braden Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz, 2011, The
Techno-Human Condition (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA); and, of course, Samuel Huntington, 1996, The Clash
of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (Simon & Schuster, New York). Among the many excellent
books on post-factual, post-modern Russia – an exemplar of the practice of weaponized warfare – are Charles
Glover, 2016, Black Wind, White Snow (Yale University Press, New Haven); Arkady Ostrovsky, 2015, The
Invention of Russia (Viking, New York); and Peter Pomerantsev, 2014, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible
(PublicAffairs, New York). The best short statements of Chinese and Russian strategies of civilizational conict
are in Q. Liang and W. Xiansui, 1999, Unrestricted Warfare (People’s Liberation Army: CIA trans.), available at (this version is highly preferable to others which distort the original content,
such as that available on, Unrestricted Warfare: China’s Master Plan to Destroy America, which
obviously is playing to a different agenda), and V. Gerasimov, 2013, “The Value of Science Is in the Foresight:
New Challenges Demand Rethinking the Forms and Methods of Carrying Out Combat Operations,” https://, (Robert
Coalson ed. & trans.), originally published Feb. 27, 2013 in Voyenno-Promyshlennyy Kurier (Russ.).
7 The Modern Mercenary, by Sean McFate. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014, page 74.
The Trust Crisis: WhoseFacts?
By Daniel Rothenberg
When people mistrust each other, facts that should serve as a baseline for discussion,
conversation and debate become the front line of conict. In fact, a lack of trust threatens the
very possibility of reasoned communication.
Think, for example, about human-caused climate change. Scientists may agree that carbon
emissions are warming the planet, yet the issue is commonly dismissed as a hoax by powerful
politicians and inuential social commentators. In fact, around half of Americans believe that
rising temperatures are either caused by natural phenomena or that the evidence is unclear or
nonexistent. The issue here is not one of fact, but of mistrust and its related domain, politics.
While nearly nine out of ten Democrats accept the idea that human activity is warming the
environment, less than one in four Republicans accept this, despite the science.
Consider another case: the citizenship of Barack Obama. Many commentators, politicians and
others who came to be known as “birthers” suggested that Obama was not born in the United
States and was therefore ineligible to be president.
The Hawaiian government then released ofcial birth
certicates demonstrating that he had been born in
the state. Nevertheless, over one in ten Americans
and a quarter of Republicans still doubted the
veracity of Obama’s U.S. birth.
It is not that “birthers” suggest that all government
documents are false. Rather they believe those
associated with the citizenship of the rst African
American president are forgeries – signs of a corrupt,
manipulative system. Since an existing document can
be doctored or a new one created, its authenticity is
ultimately an issue of trust: trust that the state can
and will appropriately regulate such papers. If a government loses this trust, the veracity of any
formally issued document – or perhaps any claim – is open to question.
Many disputes about the veracity of key issues cannot be successfully addressed by providing
those who question with better, more accurate facts. Providing evidence to contradict the
positions of climate change deniers and “birthers” – or, for that matter, those who question the
efcacy and safety of common vaccines, claim that violent crime throughout the U.S. is rising or
afrm that all GMO crops are dangerous – tends to make matters worse. Both sides leave more
angry, more frustrated and more dismissive of the other.
Some have suggested that this situation denes a “post-factual” world. This idea is misleading.
It is not the salience and veracity of facts that has disappeared. Rather, we are witnessing
profound challenges to truth within conditions of radical uncertainty. We are experiencing a
trust crisis.
When sources of information are open to endless criticism and open rejection, facts – about
science, identity, recommendations, policies, etc. – lose their solidity. People no longer respond
to data, but to the source of data. They turn with great intensity to those who present
information they sense is most trustworthy. The more widespread the uncertainty, the more
ercely they cleave to the sources they come to trust over the solidity and coherence of the
information presented.
For many in today’s world, key political issues exist in a state of deeply-rooted, deeply-felt
mistrust. Social institutions, from Congress to industry to the scientic establishment to the
media, are viewed with profound suspicion. As such, the information they present – the facts
that undergird their statements and reporting – are open to fundamental questioning. Engaging
this situation requires respecting the position of those who mistrust, understanding that it is not
necessarily the facts that present the problem. The problem is the widely held, emotionally
resonant suspicions of traditionally empowered sources.
For those deploying weaponized narrative, to focus on those ideas that undermine trust creates
the greatest impact. It also enables core strategic and tactical goals. Sometimes the most
effective form of a dangerous story is not one which factually challenges dominant beliefs. Even
better is to question the legitimacy of those actors and institutions that a society relies upon to
provide solidity and coherence to the larger social, cultural and political order.
The transformative power of the stories that undergird climate-change denial, “birthers” and
the anti-vaccine movement is in their attack on a unifying narrative: those who lay claim to
authority in our society are not to be trusted. Weaponized narrative builds on this and mirrors
this logic.
So, what can be done to contest emotionally resonant claims with limited basis in fact and little
if any possibility of verication? Those who adhere to sources presenting claims not backed up
by verication cannot be moved by countervailing claims alone. Regardless of what is written
or said, they cannot be reached through those sources and institutions viewed as suspicious.
This is because a sense of anger, rage and, above all, mistrust, denes the conditions of possible
communication, creating enormous obstacles to reasoned discussion.
The best path forward, then, is to address the actual problem. The impact and dangers of this
radical uncertainty can only be countered by either playing off the inherent vulnerabilities of the
situation or building on what is, in fact, trusted. There are two key strategies.
First, one can delegitimize the sources being used. Those poised to accept and embrace this mode
of discourse have a heightened awareness and sensitivity to the idea of manipulation. The claims
they adhere to are often rendered powerful as much through their critique of traditional sources
as through the coherence of what is presented. As such, this is a group that already views those
who trafc in information as potentially suspect. And, just as more veriable, self-critical sources
are routinely undermined, newly emerging sources of weaponized narrative can be questioned
and delegitimized as well.
Second, within a context of rising uncertainty, valid claims build on the signicance of networks
of trust. A friend forwards a link to a website. Colleagues explain a political issue. Neighbors,
family, those of the same faith community and others raise questions and imbue controversies
with a sense of personally resonant seriousness.
Yet, these forms of enabling truth claims are uid. That is, their strength for validating
information – including weaponized narratives – is also their core vulnerability. That is, when
countervailing and corrective ideas can be presented from and through these networks, these
claims emerge with signicant validity. In this way, the conversation can be shifted from within
to undermine stories that stray from factual veracity.
Among the best ways to disarm various allegations – that the Pope endorsed Trump, that Clinton
was working for a secret group of global bankers, that Clinton was responsible for multiple
murders over decades – is for stories undermining or, even better, mocking, such accounts to nd
their way onto the same digital pathways.
People have long lived through uncertainty and cleaved to those they trust. Yet the rapidity and
complexity of our information-rich world are new and present distinct challenges. While there is
no singular answer to the risks and dangers of weaponized narrative, the way forward requires
that we ght mistrust with trust.
Daniel Rothenberg is co-director of the Center on the Future of War – a
partnership between Arizona State University and the independent Washington,
D.C., think tank New America – of which the Weaponized Narrative Initiative is a
part. At ASU he is Professor of Practice, School of Politics and Global Studies.
“Truth”: Why Spock Is Such
an Unusual Character
By Jon Herrmann
In a post-modern world, what replaces rationality as our basis for “truth”?
The question assumes that the average person has been using rationality as his or her basis
for deciding that something is “true” – in accordance with reality. But what if that’s not the
case? Even economists now recognize that individuals do not always make prudent and logical
decisions. That’s why Daniel Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics for his
“behavioral economics.”
What if most people handle political choices by rationally choosing not to spend their lives
studying the issues? What if most people, instead, nd a leader or party that they can agree with
(a proxy), and thereafter support what the proxy supports?
Some political scientists and sociologists go further, indicating that the average voter will usually
shift their preferences to match the
chosen proxy instead of changing
proxies. Other studies suggest voters
often convince themselves that the
proxy aligns with their views, despite
statements or events to the contrary.
Most people seem to think that most
political issues don’t affect them,
or that their vote doesn’t matter, so
they don’t decide on the truth for
It’s hard to gauge truth all by
ourselves, though – especially if we’re
looking for the common ground of
a shared truth. Many groups share a
common truth - religious communities, for example. To some extent, ideologies are also a shared
truth. But shared truths can be used to manipulate us unless we study those foundational truths.
To detect a forgery, for example, you have to have studied many real paper dollars.
When we look at what’s changing in society, the main difference may not be in the populace,
but the proxies that the people choose to follow. Once, societal pressure pushed people to follow
“reputable” proxies. With the advent of the Internet, it’s much easier to merely seem to be a
credible proxy. Social media sites don’t vet opinion leaders the way traditional media did. Those
without serious credibility (or, to offer the alt viewpoint, those opposing traditional elites) can
now reach people without elite intermediaries like the media or established politicians. And to
the average American, one website may look as credible as another.
People have always looked for an opinion leader who says what the listener already believes.
But if a listener agreed with a disreputable speaker, then the listener’s friends disapproved. The
average person – not wanting to face disapproval – found another proxy. After choosing the
more respectable and mainstream proxy, the average person would often moderate their own
views. Most people, following moderate proxies, became more moderate.
“The virtuous cycle
can begin with
one. When fake
news is posted to
someone’s social
media feed, even
one friend saying
‘Hey, that might not
be true’ increases
the likelihood of the
truth coming out.”
The change is that less moderate, more partisan (and strident) sources can now appear more
credible. Further, social networks connect homogeneous circles of friends (online, and often
in person). This homogeneity allows extremists to support other extremists. The support of
the social structure protects and promotes extremism. Studies show that a small group of like-
minded people can sustain and increase a minority perspective. If that perspective is good,
then this is a good effect. But if the perspective is dangerous – such as neo-Nazism – then the
homogeneous group that protects and fosters it is fertile ground for serious societal problems.
For example, it’s well documented that everyone seems to hate Congress – except for their
representative, the only good person in Washington. And most folk decry hatred, partisanship,
and bitterness.
However, when asked if they will cooperate with an ideological rival, then unwillingness to
compromise seems honorable – and even necessary. Those who compromise are seen as “out of
touch.” The homogeneous social network creates the appearance of universal agreement with
whatever one believes, undermining self-examination. Those who disagree – or even seem less
fervent – may be ostracized or even threatened.
Since no white paper can change human nature or persuade folk to study and vote on the issues,
what can be done? Several ideas offer hope. I’ll mention a few here, because their combination
could create synergy, boosting defenses against everything from “fake news” and phishing scams
to weaponized narrative.
Research shows that critical thinking is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets.
The more you exercise your critical thinking, with greater cognitive ease can you distinguish
truth from falsehood.
Several professions routinely evaluate information and its use. Detectives and investigators
search for truth, as do journalists and law professionals. Psychologists and behavioral
economists study techniques that make the mind respond without questioning. Theologians and
philosophers critically examine texts and thinking. Intelligence analysts examine everything from
satellite images to social media posts for signs of truth. These professions can offer insights to
improve resistance to “alternative facts.”
Resisting misleading or confusing information is more difcult now. The Web makes it easy
for a propagandist to create multiple mutually-supporting, linked stories. The average reader is
unlikely to dig into one story to ask “Is this true?” Most people instead “surf” the Web, hitting
the high points and going with the ow of information. This method of ickering attention from
point to point, rather than contemplating one subject, creates a vulnerability to falsehood.
The simple act of questioning “Is this information true?” could be a signicant improvement
in the pursuit of truth. One questioner sparks others. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal noted that it
takes a network to defeat a network. Propagandists use networks (social and fabricated, such
as botnets) to spread confusion and disinformation. It would be wise to develop a network to
promote truth and counter falsehood.
Crowdsourcing could reignite challenges to the disreputable and restore the social disapproval
that moderated behavior in the past. The virtuous cycle can begin with one. Studies show that
one dissenting voice has a tremendous impact, encouraging others to challenge assertions.
When fake news is posted to someone’s social media feed, even one friend saying “Hey, that
might not be true” increases the likelihood of the truth coming out. That may be difcult. It’s
easier to accept information that aligns with one’s preexisting beliefs. However, if the average
person understands why truth matters, then we’re more likely to question. If enough people are
motivated to question, then questions can unearth the truth.
Maintaining intellectually and ideologically diverse social circles can also bolster the search for
truth. Friends with divergent views challenge our beliefs.
That can be uncomfortable. We have to grasp the importance of truth enough to accept potential
discomfort and effort. The question isn’t one of ability to nd the truth, but rather if enough
people care enough about the truth to seek it.
Jon Herrmann is a career Air Force intelligence and information operations
(IO) ofcer, with 25 years of intelligence experience and 18 years in the IO
community. He currently works with 1st IO Command, U.S. Army Intelligence
and Security Command, at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and teaches at the National
Intelligence University.
Marines: Tell It to The
By Kurt M. Sanger and Brad Allenby
The most signicant difculty with U.S. use of weaponized narrative is that, quite simply, the
kind of duplicity and moral relativism that lies behind its success is profoundly un-American.
Ironically, this may also suggest an important counter to such attacks.
We can best illustrate this by looking at the United States Marine Corps. The Marine Corps
expects honor, courage and commitment to inuence every moment and every decision in a
Marine’s life. These values are imprinted on recruits and ofcer candidates in many ways, the
most powerful of which is through the many hours in initial training spent learning the Corps’
history – the battles, the stories of Marine heroes, and the institution’s unique place in the
American culture. Nearing the end of boot camp and Ofcer Candidates School, these values are
manifested in the character of Marines visible even in minor gestures – the way one respectfully
greets a stranger, folds a tee shirt, or merely listens to someone else talk while looking them in
the eye without dreaming of interrupting. Binding Marines to those who created the values
and earned the Corps’ reputation enables this transformation. The spirits of Marines past stand
beside those on active duty, forever whispering, “never let us down.”
The foundation of the Corps’ character makes the prospects of weaponized narrative a
formidable challenge. What are the implications of weaponized narrative to an institution that
cherishes honor, justice and integrity? How can an institution committed to these values use
such a weapon? How can such a weapon target the institution?
Using weaponized narrative against
adversaries would be outside the mission
and the traditions of the Marine Corps.
Tactical deception of enemy forces and using
misinformation to lure them into making bad
decisions is fair game; deceiving a civilian
population is unnatural and counterproductive,
and lies far beyond either the training or the
culture of the Marine Corps. The hostility
that weaponized narratives show to the truth is directly averse to the Marine Corps’ most treasured
values. Especially in counterinsurgencies, in which winning the support of a population is the
central issue, the credibility of the forces living among those populations is essential.
The more concerning issue is how weaponized narrative might affect the Marine Corps. Given
what weaponized narratives have done to other communities, the manner in which Marines are
developed, and how Marine values are sustained over generations despite rapid turnover in the
service, the Corps could nd itself an attractive target for this novel threat.
There are some indications, for example, that moral injury may occur when weaponized
narratives undermine the strong identities that characterize the American warrior generally, and
the Marine Corps in particular. (“Moral injury” is debilitating psychological or spiritual damage
resulting from transgression of deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.) 8 9
Further, as the Corps seeks to replace Marines ending their service, the impact of weaponized
narratives on young Americans who join may have long-term effects on the institution.
An individual Marine needs a lot more than integrity to be valuable to his or her unit, but without it,
“Almost as
dangerous as
a Marine who
cannot be trusted
is a Marine who
cannot trust.”
a Marine is nothing. Almost as dangerous as a Marine who cannot be trusted, however, is a Marine
who cannot trust. If young Americans grow up suspicious of government institutions and leaders
they may still seek to join the Marine Corps, but their ability to function in it will be diminished.
So there is clearly a potential threat from well-conceived weaponized narrative attack. But
there is another side to this picture. One of the strongest counters to campaigns of weaponized
narrative against the United States as a whole is the soft power of American culture, which is
open, accepting, and multicultural, rewards initiative, and is based on individual rights and
responsibilities. Even something most Americans take for granted – the rule of law rather than
the arbitrary whim of the powerful – resonates strongly with those who have never known
such stability and accountability. At another level, the same is true of the Marine Corps. The
attractiveness of the strong role model of the Marine – with an identity that necessarily demands
sacrice, honor, and integrity – should not be underestimated. This is especially true for young
people who have had their identity challenged by weaponized narratives of various kinds, or
indeed from the warring narratives of all kinds that increasingly infest the world.
It would be premature to suggest that this weaponized narrative threat to the Marine Corps – or the
U.S. military generally – has been understood, much less successfully countered. Recognizing that
it poses a signicant challenge is, however, the rst step, and that step is being taken.
Nonetheless, undue pessimism would also be premature: the very characteristics of the Marine
Corps that make them potentially vulnerable to such weapons might also be an unexpected
source of signicant resilience against them.
Kurt Sanger is a lieutenant colonel and judge advocate in the U.S. Marine
Corps, and a graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center’s National
Security program.
Brad Allenby, co-director of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative, served as an
ofcer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
8 Moral Injury: Unseen Wounds in an Age of Barbarism, by Tom Frame. Sydney: University of New South Wales
Press, 2015.
9 War And Moral Injury: A Reader, Robert Emmet Meagher and Douglas A. Pryer, eds. Eugene, OR: Wipf &
Stock. 2017.
Strategy: Thinking Forward
By Jeff Kubiak
Good strategists are those who fundamentally understand what’s different. Strategy comes into
being when there is “a sense of actual or imminent instability, a changing context that induces
conict.”10 The central concerns of strategy are power, interaction, and decisions. Each of these
concerns must be critically rethought in the upheaval of our age.
Since strategy is about how to think forward, I suggest that weaponized narrative strategy is
served by combining some simple insights from complex systems theory with what we know
about narratives and scripts.
Trust in many traditional institutions has eroded, but trust hasn’t disappeared. It has atomized
from large, heterogeneous, and largely contiguous communities to micropowers many have
called “walled communities” or “echo chambers” – a host of smaller networks of like-minded
or single-issue individuals who could be distributed anywhere on the globe. This increases the
number of relevant actors dramatically, increasing the complexity of strategy at every level.
The information environment now resembles a complex ecosystem more than some complicated
machine that could be directed through rational, scientic institutions. The attributes of such
complex systems include nonlinearity (system outcome disproportionate to an input), opaque
cause and effect (traditional understanding of cause and effect fail to achieve desired outcomes),
feedback (blowback), and emergent properties (the whole is different than the sum of its parts).
The more complex the world appears, the more pronounced is the role emotions plays in the
decision making of individuals. Consider the behavioral economics framework devised by 2002
Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky. System One thinking –
the subconscious, intuitive and often emotional response to a situation – is often left uncorrected
by an overwhelmed System Two thinking process that is susceptible to accepting oversimplied
rationalizations. The uncertainty and frustration that complexity creates in the mind of decision
makers at all levels can increase the likelihood of accepting narratives that just feel right despite
the lack of facts – or even contrary to facts.
Military theorist John Boyd explained organizational decision making using what he called
the OODA loop; the cyclical processing through Observation, Orientation, Deciding, and
Acting. The central component of the OODA loop for Boyd was orientation. Orientation was
the construction of mental images or schema that shaped our observation, decisions and acting.
Constant adjustment of one’s orientation assured the intake of the relevant information and
processes to ensure rapid and efcient decision-making and action.
Boyd knew that orientation was built into institutions/hierarchy/SOPs and doctrine. When that
orientation was congruent with the environment, it enabled the organization to cycle through the
OODA loop at a rate faster than the opponent. During times when the environment was changing
slowly, these institutions would grow and execute nearly automatically. However, during times
of rapid change, these institutions needed to be destroyed and recreated as one’s orientation was
adjusted to match reality. Applying Boyd’s thinking to the strategic concerns of our surging
information environment would suggest that old institutions need to be completely rebuilt.
What this suggests to me is that a fully new organization should be built around this new
orientation and tasked with engaging adversaries in the information realm. The Department
of Defense – built around Enlightenment-era rationalization and its accompanying hierarchy
– may still be suitable for responding to major industrial-age combat operations. But it is
fundamentally mist to the current information environment.
The same holds true for some laws and regulations that deal with the information realm. Rand
Waltzman, the former DARPA program manager, has argued for the creation of a new Center for
Information Environment Security, as well as the overturn of U.S. law 50 U.S. Code § 3093(f)
which effectively prohibits the government from action “intended to inuence United States
political processes, public opinion, policies, or media.”11 Organizing for achieving continuing
advantage in the current environment demands these things.
Strategy design should also consider some insights of complexity theory.
These include:
“You can never do just one thing.” This statement of Columbia’s Robert Jervis12 has a
dual meaning. First, every action in a system is likely to generate more than one outcome
– possibly the desired outcome plus an unintended outcome. Additionally, when acting
in a complex system you should act along multiple approaches. Jervis explains how one
might approach complexity: “First, people can constrain other actors and reduce if not
eliminate the extent to which their environment is highly systemic and characterized by
unintended consequences. Second, although … people often fail to appreciate that they
are operating in a system, understanding may enable them to compensate for the results
that would otherwise occur. Third, people may be able to proceed toward their goals
indirectly and can apply multiple policies, either simultaneously or sequentially, in order
to correct for or take advantage of the fact that in a system, consequences are multiple.”
“The Department of Defense –
built around Enlightenment-era
rationalization and its
accompanying hierarchy – may still
be suitable for responding to major
industrial-age combat operations.
But it is fundamentally mist to the
current information environment.”
Act to learn. David Snowden’s Cynen Framework13 suggests that in complex
environments “we can understand why things happen only in retrospect. Instructive
patterns, however, can emerge if the leader conducts experiments that are safe to fail.
That is why, instead of attempting to impose a course of action, leaders must patiently
allow the path forward to reveal itself. They need to probe rst, then sense, and then
“Plans are worthless but planning is everything.” This famous Eisenhower aphorism
captures the implicit understanding that all plans contain assumptions about cause and
effect that will prove false in execution. However, if the unintended consequences
are thought through in the planning phase then organizations are much more likely to
achieve better outcomes.
Narratives have power to hold an audience – and therefore have power – as long as the behaviors
of the central actors stay consistent with expectations. Narratives can fall apart when an actor
strays from his role. An example and thought experiment might be useful.
On March 22, 1775, Edmund Burke delivered a three-hour speech in the House of Commons,
imploring the adoption of thirteen resolutions that would seek conciliation with the North American
colonies that had threatened rebellion. Initial shows of force by the Crown in attempting to enforce
compliance with the laws passed by Parliament were met with increasing resistance. Burke had a
deep insight into the colonists and their unique orientation. He knew that their deepest motive force
was that of liberty and hatred for tyranny. Moving against the colonists with coercive force would
only play into the script the rebels had written for the Crown and therefore only serve to legitimate
and strengthen the case for rebellion. Once the rebellion had consolidated around a narrative of
opposing tyranny, all of the other disadvantages Britain faced – not the least of which was distance
– would be made all the more troubling and costly to overcome.
Of course, the Crown had a script of its own and chose to follow it – the law is the law and the
authority of the Crown must be obeyed. So, it was war and the U.S. and Britain remained serious
adversaries for more than 100 years.
But what if King George and Parliament had decided to take Burke’s advice and deviate from
their script knowing that the context was so very different in this case? Accepting that playing
into the opponent’s script made him stronger and put you at a disadvantage, one might be wise to
seek a different role, one in which the opponent was forced to actually attempt to adopt another
narrative in order to maintain coherence and thus power.
That might rightfully be called strategy.
Jeff Kubiak is the Senior Fellow at ASU’s Center on the Future of War and a
professor of practice in the School of Politics and Global Studies. He’s taught
politics and strategy at the Naval War College, the School of Advanced Air and
Space Studies, and the School of Advanced Military Studies. Before Dr. Kubiak
retired from the Air Force as a colonel he was a B-1 driver.
10 Strategy, by Sir Lawrence Freedman. New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2013, page 611.
11 “The US Is Losing at Inuence Warfare. Here’s Why,” by Patrick Tucker. Defense One, December 5, 2016. http://uence-warfare-heres-why/133654/?oref=defenseone_today_nl ,
accessed February 20, 2017.
12 System Effects: Complexity in Political and Social Life, by Robert Jervis. Princeton: Princeton University Press,
13A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making,” by David J. Snowden. Harvard Business Review, November 2007,, accessed February 20, 2017.
Defending: Awareness and Protection
By Scott Ruston
If weaponized narrative is the new battleeld of the 21st century, how do we defend against it?
To understand why this weapon works, we must start with how narrative contributes to societal
identities. A fundamental tenet of psychology holds that people conceive of themselves in terms
of stories, and that one’s future is projected as a continuation of the story, as yet unnished.
By extension, societies understand themselves and their identities through stories. Stories
coalesce into narrative systems, and the structure of these systems provides templates to
understand subsequent systems.
For example, the many stories of immigrants coming to the United States and contributing to
society traditionally coalesce into a larger system that has four broad components:
Individual eeing a conict (religious persecution, famine, war, lack of prospects);
Individual with a goal (new life in the U.S.);
Actions (challenge to arrive in U.S., integration into U.S., nding allies, overcoming
challenges); and
Resolution (successful establishment of new life, lasting impact on U.S. society, etc.).
Shorthand titles might be “The Immigrant Narrative” or the “Land of Opportunity Narrative” or
the “Huddled Masses Narrative.” (This last title particularly applies to a subset of these stories
with the common element of destitute, oppressed or vulnerable main gures.) Subsequent stories
about individuals coming to the US would then be understood in this context.
If new stories entering the narrative landscape of a society are usually understood within
the template of such an existing success and contribution narrative, how does “weaponized
narrative” derail this process and fundamentally attack the core of a society’s identity and will?
The rst method is to ood the narrative landscape with alternative templates.
In the above example, the Land of Opportunity Narrative expresses fundamental values of
equality, a welcoming of immigrants and a resolution of successful integration into American
society. (Sometimes wildly successful – as in the story of Adolphus Busch recently celebrated
with some poetic license in a Super Bowl commercial.14)
Flooding the zone with apocryphal and over-hyped stories of illegal immigrant ows and violent
crimes activates an alternative narrative – one that constructs values of nativism/isolationism and
law/order, but demonizes the Other. In this case, narrative delity15 is achieved by replacing one
known/accepted narrative template with another known, but less widely accepted, template that
promotes different values. This tactic is made doubly successful when the veracity of all stories
is dubious. Because then, the falsehoods of fake news simultaneously diminish the value of and
faith in accurate news, and selecting which narrative template for sense-making becomes difcult.
The second method is to introduce numerous narrative components (stories, events, characters)
that disrupt the narrative coherence of a narrative system. In the 2016 election campaign,
numerous stories circulated – some promoted or magnied by Russian-sponsored media outlets
and internet trolls – claiming Hillary Clinton murdered FBI agents, ran a sex-trafcking ring,
sold weapons to ISIS, suffered from debilitating illness and was secretly barred from holding
federal ofce (among many others). While lurid, these stories are also disruptive to the narrative
coherence of a campaign trajectory resolving with Clinton’s superior qualications as the “best
man for the job”.
Both methods of weaponized narrative attacks disrupt the narrative validity of societal identity
narratives, and thus cause a lack of faith in communal will and shared values.
If an adversary uses weaponized narrative to
assault a society’s identity and will, what are the
resources for an integrated defense? As with
a pathogen, the best defense is not an antidote.
The best defense is awareness and protective
How? Are these arcane secrets known only
to strategic communication and information
operations units training at secret Defense and State department facilities? No. Are these
awareness and protection functions even operated by any governmental department? No.
These defenses against weaponized narrative are social institutions. Two in particular that are
relevant – at least in principle – are the press and education. But they of course then become a
valuable attack target.
A free press, one respected by both the government and the polity, provides a valuable service.
It informs the public; it provides insights to the mechanisms of power; it reveals the actions of a
wide range of societal elements (to include governance). It also plays a role in both shaping and
revealing the narrative templates we use to make sense and signicance of the stories uncovered
and shared. When operating as a respected social institution, the press increases our awareness
of both the narrative components in play and the narrative templates. When the press’ status
is undermined, however – e.g., referring to the press as “the enemy of the people” – and the
people lose faith in their veracity and legitimacy, then an information vacuum arises. Humans
are storytelling animals and ones that despise information vacuums. They will ll information
vacuums with other stories. Rumors (a form of weaponized narrative) proliferate in societies
is the
degree to which
a narrative rings
true with what
the audience
already believes.
with weak media institutions, cleaving to what bits of delity are possible and seeking or
disrupting coherence.16
The social institution of broad-based education provides the critical thinking skills to operate
within the information landscape and to consciously place information into narrative template
categories rather than relying solely on emotions evoked. The critical thinking skills cultivated
by education allows individuals to cut through the ideological elements attached to information.
From political parties to government agencies to
businesses and to the press itself, all institutions
utilize narrative for ideological functions. These
institutions will tell stories in such a way as to
universalize certain conditions, making unique
situations appear common, while making
the conditions seem normal and expected, or
naturalizing them. They will use stories to
obscure contradictions and structure the debate
in ways favoring the institution.17 Unpacking how these functions operate, and especially their
construction of a narrative template’s coherence, is the province of a robust education, and
necessary for the responsible and credible execution of citizenship.
Currently there is a sustained assault on the value and respect of the press as a social institution
with dangerous consequences. In its role of revealing the mechanisms and machinations of power,
the press has always occupied an activist and moderately adversarial relationship with established
power structures. The distrust of the media from the political establishment has changed, however,
from a dissatisfaction with the media’s framing of sets of facts and has become an all-out assault
on the professionalism and value of the press as an institution. As this assault spreads across the
populace, it severely weakens the resiliency to weaponized narrative that a respected press provides.
Similarly, education is in less than robust shape. Federal spending on primary and secondary
education, after dramatic post-war increases from the 1940s through late 1970s, has increased
slowly in comparison to signicant population growth. The Great Recession saw dramatic cuts in
state funding of higher education. Valorization of standardized tests have eroded critical thinking
skills development.
the consistency
of internal
logic, or degree
the narrative
hangs together.
While increased cyber defenses and “fake news detection” widgets for social media are helpful
interventions, real resilience to weaponized narrative will come from a united effort of civic
groups, political leaders and the citizenry to fortify our social institutions.
Scott W. Ruston is an assistant research professor in Arizona State University’s
Center for Strategic Communication where he specializes in narrative theory
and media studies. He is co-author of the award-winning Narrative Landmines:
Rumors, Islamist Extremism and the Struggle for Strategic Inuence.
14 “Budweiser’s Super Bowl Ad And The Great Debate Over What It Means To Be An American,” by Maria
Godoy, NPR, 3 February 2017.
ad-misses-the-real-timelier-story-about-immigrants-and-be Accessed 24 February 2017.
15 Denitions of narrative delity and coherence adapted from “Narration as a human communication paradigm:
The case of public moral argument,” by Walter R. Fisher. Communications Monographs, 51(1), 1-22 (1984).
16 For more on rumors as weaponized narratives see: Bernardi, B., P.H. Cheong, C. Lundry and S.W. Ruston (2012)
Narrative Landmines: Rumors, Islamist Extremism and the Struggle for Strategic Inuence (New Brunswick:
Rutgers University Press).
17 For more on the social functions of ideology, see: “Out of their heads and into their conversation: countering
extremist ideology” by A. S. Trethewey and B. Goodall. Consortium for Consortium for Strategic Communication
Report #0902, (2009)
extremist-ideology/ accessed 3 March 2017.
Towards an Adequate Response
By Herbert Lin
Weaponized narrative is guerrilla warfare and terrorism in the information environment, using
words and images rather than bombs and bullets. The victims are truth, reason, and reection.
A fast-moving information deluge is the ideal battleground for these guerrillas and terrorists. A
rehose of narrative ow gives the targeted populace little time to process and evaluate. It’s
cognitively disorienting and confusing. Opportunities for emotional manipulation abound.
Who uses weaponized narratives? In the news recently are the efforts by Russia to meddle in
the elections of Western democracies. But non-state actors (the Islamic State comes to mind)
demonstrate high sophistication. Even political movements have caught on, as one can see in the
rise of the alt-right in the United States and Europe. In short, weaponized narratives are useful
tools for many different types of adversaries in this combat.
How can democracies deal with the onslaught of weaponized narratives? What is possible and
will work?
Although the volume and velocity of information has increased by orders of magnitude in the
past few decades, the architecture of the human mind has not changed much in the last few
thousand years. Human beings still have the same built-in cognitive and perceptual limitations
that they have always had.
To cope, some people turn to traditional curators and their online equivalents—newspapers, for
example —to professionally lter and sift incoming information. To the extent these nancially
diminished services can still provide useful and factual information from multiple points of view,
these readers have at least some tools to cope with weaponized narratives.
But many others turn to social media and search engines to lter the information ocean. These
alternatives do not provide the kind of “smart” editorial function that traditional intermediaries
provide, and these readers have no particular incentive to seek information that contradicts or
challenges their prior beliefs. These individuals are not what the Founding Fathers had in mind
when they placed their trust in a well-informed citizenry.
What to do?
It’s helpful to start with some ideas that are unlikely to help very much. For example, the U.S.
response to Soviet propaganda in the Cold War was to launch Radio Free Europe and Voice of
America to provide alternative information sources. These services operated as independent
journalism outlets providing truthful information – generally unltered by the U.S. government –
to those behind the Iron Curtain, though of course they were not seen that way by the Soviets.
But it is hard to imagine such an approach helping very much today. Target audiences of
weaponized narrative today are in the Western democracies. There, individuals have—and
are supposed to have—considerable freedom as well as the legal right to choose their own
information sources. Any approach to countering weaponized narratives will have to refrain
from exercising government control over content. Our freedom of speech guarantees enable
Weaponized narrative is
guerrilla warfare and terrorism
in the information environment,
using words and images
rather than bombs and bullets.
The victims are truth, reason,
and reection.”
Russia, foreign terrorist groups, and extreme political movements to encourage and celebrate
the public expression of raw emotion—anger, fear, anxiety—through the use of weaponized
narratives. Such narratives channel powerful destructive and delegitimizing forces against
government and responsible media.
Meanwhile, Radio Free Europe and Voice of America operated at a pace that would be
completely inadequate in countering the hostile narratives offered today. That’s why the
Global Engagement Center will likely prove to be an inadequate response. The GEC is an
interagency ofce established by Executive Order in 2016 to “lead the coordination, integration,
and synchronization of Government-wide communications activities directed at foreign
audiences abroad in order to counter
the messaging and diminish the
inuence of international terrorist
organizations”. It is not designed
to focus on adversary nations, much
less domestic guerrillas. And any
effort to coordinate and synchronize
government-wide communications
will happen much more slowly than
our adversaries can generate new
narratives. Just ask–will Russia
or the Islamic State be asking their
lawyers about how they should
coordinate their narrative operations
against the West?
On the citizen side, efforts to improve civic participation and engagement are always important.
But the scale of the effort needed to move that needle is enormous, especially given that people
resist the absorption of knowledge and information that disturbs their prior beliefs.
If solutions lie not with government and not with individual citizens, perhaps the private
sector can play a meaningful role. Some major actors have indeed acknowledged a degree of
responsibility to countering weaponized narratives. For example, Facebook is deploying a
new protocol to ag questionable news sites. If an independent fact checker determines that
“Americans pride
themselves on being
an inventive people.
Let us launch the
brainstorming of
our defense against
these attacks in the
spirit of showing
them what we’re
made of.
a site is fake news, Facebook will label it “disputed” and push the connection to the end of an
individual’s news feed. Google bans fake news web sites from using its online advertising
service. Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook shut down accounts that they determine are promoting
terrorist content.
Such measures are helpful but inadequate to stem the rising tide of weaponized narratives. Some
would advocate for more intrusive or aggressive steps, such as cutting off prominent users
who are “obviously” disseminating misinformation. But for the most part, private companies
have no legal responsibility to protect the expression of all points of view—they only need
to behave in accord with their Terms of Service (TOS), the voluntary agreement that governs
their interaction with users. So far, goes the argument, these companies have interpreted TOS
agreements so narrowly that a lot of misinformation and inammatory rhetoric ows. But these
private companies also respond to shareholder and advertiser concerns, and in the end, they quite
properly intend to make a prot. What is “obviously” misinformation to one user may not be
obvious to others. Broad interpretations of TOS agreements run the risk of alienating a large part
of their user base.
So, in the end, weaponized narratives are a big problem for modern democracies. But the past
solutions that come to mind are inadequate or bad or unlikely to work on the necessary scale.
This is a signicant challenge. We should face it, realizing that past tactics and defenses are
likely inadequate.
Americans pride themselves on being an inventive people. Let us launch the brainstorming of
our defense against these attacks in the spirit of showing them what we’re made of.
Herbert Lin is a cyber policy and security expert who spent more than twenty-ve
years as the Chief Scientist of the Computer Science and Telecommunications
Board at the National Academies. Lin has advised senior leaders in government,
industry, and civil society about issues including encryption, offensive cyber
operations, and nuclear command and control. Today he is a senior research
scholar at Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation and is the
Hank J. Holland Fellow at the Hoover Institution.
“The Internet has
accelerated a phenomenon
of people nding one
another with all sorts
of consequences, some
wonderful and some
Murray Gell-Mann,
Nobel-winning pioneer
in complex systems, 2001
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Islamic extremism is the dominant security concern of many contemporary governments, spanning the industrialized West to the developing world. Narrative Landmines explores how rumors fit into and extend narrative systems and ideologies, particularly in the context of terrorism, counter-terrorism, and extremist insurgencies. Its concern is to foster a more sophisticated understanding of how oral and digital cultures work alongside economic, diplomatic, and cultural factors that influence the struggles between states and non-state actors in the proverbial battle of hearts and minds. Beyond face-to-face communication, the authors also address the role of new and social media in the creation and spread of rumors. As narrative forms, rumors are suitable to a wide range of political expression, from citizens, insurgents, and governments alike, and in places as distinct as Singapore, Iraq, and Indonesia-the case studies presented for analysis. The authors make a compelling argument for understanding rumors in these contexts as "narrative IEDs," low-cost, low-tech weapons that can successfully counter such elaborate and expansive government initiatives as outreach campaigns or strategic communication efforts. While not exactly the same as the advanced technological systems or Improvised Explosive Devices to which they are metaphorically related, narrative IEDs nevertheless operate as weapons that can aid the extremist cause. Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Leonard Bernardi, Pauline Hope Cheong, Chris Lundry, and Scott W. Ruston. All rights reserved.
This essay proposes a theory of human communication based on a conception of persons as homo narrans. It compares and contrasts this view with the traditional rational perspective on symbolic interaction. The viability of the narrative paradigm and its attendant notions of reason and rationality are demonstrated through an extended analysis of key aspects of the current nuclear war controversy and a brief application to The Epic of Gilgamesh. The narrative paradigm synthesizes two strands in rhetorical theory: the argumentative, persuasive theme and the literary, aesthetic theme.
Out of their heads and into their conversation: countering extremist ideology Consortium for Consortium for Strategic Communication Report #0902
  • A S Trethewey
  • B Goodall
For more on the social functions of ideology, see: " Out of their heads and into their conversation: countering extremist ideology " by A. S. Trethewey and B. Goodall. Consortium for Consortium for Strategic Communication Report #0902, (2009) accessed 3 March 2017.
Ruston is an assistant research professor in Arizona State University's Center for Strategic Communication where he specializes in narrative theory and media studies
  • W Scott
Scott W. Ruston is an assistant research professor in Arizona State University's Center for Strategic Communication where he specializes in narrative theory and media studies. He is co-author of the award-winning Narrative Landmines: Rumors, Islamist Extremism and the Struggle for Strategic Influence.