Earlier this month, the United States Special Operations Command gathered a group of experts in New York City to discuss a significant threat facing the nation. SOCOM has a storied history of staying at the forefront of the warfighting endeavor; taking the fight to places Americans don’t always expect and operating beyond the confines of the conventional war fighting apparatus, but in this new battlespace, it isn’t combat hardened grit or superior firepower that’ll make the difference — it’s embracing a new understanding of how narratives can shape the world’s view of itself.
Understanding just what that means, and how exactly it plays into SOCOM’s warfighting role, is no easy undertaking. In an effort to better appreciate the importance of actively managing narratives, SOFREP spoke to one of the very experts SOCOM turned to: Dr. Ajit Maan.
Dr. Maan is the head of a think tank known as Narrative Strategies, where she and her colleagues, comprised primarily of veteran experts, work to address the sort of narrative manipulation strategies employed by America’s opponents abroad.
Everything from ISIS recruitment efforts to Russian propaganda fall within Dr. Maan and her team’s purview, but unlike other think-tanks that only focus on how academic theory applies to the real world, Narrative Strategies is capable of more than consulting in the form of advising clients – prompting Dr. Maan to characterize her group as more of a “think-and-do” tank. Beyond just consulting, they’re able to actually implement narrative strategies in a proactive and operational way. In short, they’re not trying to mitigate the negative effects of information warfare, they’re looking to get into the fight.
As Dr. Maan will tell you herself, when it comes to managing narratives, being proactive is the name of the game, and unfortunately, that’s where the United States is falling behind its peers and competitors.
“A narrative is a strategic story,” Dr. Maan explained, “told in a certain way for a certain purpose. The purpose is to influence you. The way is to trigger your identity.”
Triggering a person’s identity means finding a way to give a narrative a personal meaning for the recipient, eliciting a response by evoking personal beliefs, biases, and even experiences. Propaganda, a common tool for manipulating a narrative, aims to make an issue personal, so the recipient absorbs the message in a way that seems almost interwoven with the fabric of their own identity.
“Disinformation campaigns are about meaning and identity. If a narrative gives you meaning in a positive way, you’ll stick with it,” she said.
For many Americans, this topic likely elicits images of Russian troll farms, working to manipulate perceptions of political candidates and even military actions around the world via social media, but Dr. Maan is quick to correct the assumption that all narrative management efforts are inherently nefarious. That assumption, in fact, may be the reason the United States finds itself falling behind in the digital battlespace over public perception.
“We (Americans) can’t seem to get away from a defensive stature. We try to counter the narratives of bad actors with facts and the truth, but the only way to win is to provide a bigger, better narrative that engulfs the bad.”
Dr. Maan specializes in terror recruitment narratives, and through her work has studied nearly a thousand different campaigns aimed at indoctrinating people into extremist belief structures. According to her, nearly every narrative she approached worked in the same basic ways.
“You tell a person that they’re a victim, and that being a victim is not their birthright. Then you tell them about how the ‘other’ victimizes you, and finally, you tell them that they have a right to do something about it.” Dr. Maan said.
She went on to explain that the current Defense Department mindset places a large emphasis on using what’s known as “counter-narratives.” When Russia claims Syrians shot down 71 inbound missiles in this month’s offensive, the Defense Department issues a statement refuting it with facts — but the endeavor can be self defeating. The counter-narrative strategy lends credibility to the false narratives presented by opponents simply by addressing them, effectively expanding the reach of the initial (opponent’s) point just to provide America’s counterpoint.
Dr. Maan posits that America needs to go on the offensive, offering its own narratives and addressing the goals behind enemy campaigns, rather than taking on their statements in a form of dialogue. Refuting a statement does nothing but create a debate, but shining a light on motive can delegitmize an entire disinformation campaign.
It’s important to remember that when it comes to managing narratives, the truth only matters if it wins out. Most people around the world aren’t at the site of a terror attack in Paris or an alleged intercept between U.S. and Russian fighters. Instead, they’re left to decide between narratives presented to them. When faced with such a decision, most people will choose the one that flatters their identity through any one of a number of processes like confirmation bias.
“Many of my colleagues think that the way to inoculate domestic audiences to propaganda is to teach critical thinking,” Dr. Maan said. “I think critical thinking is important, but the logistics of mass education are daunting and teaching critical thinking takes time.”
While educating the masses in critical thinking is a worthwhile and necessary endeavor, Dr. Maan believes you can curtail the effect bad actor narratives have on the American public by addressing the way narrative works in our own efforts. When an enemy narrative engages a person’s identity in a flattering way, America’s response needs to tell them why they are trying to manipulate their perceptions.
And then, as Dr. Maan puts it, we need to remind the recipient that “they’re better than” letting such an effort manipulate them for someone else’s gain.
While critical thinking education could be the long term solution to America’s growing problem with competing (and often intentionally fabricated foreign) narratives, Dr. Maan offers a simple question that can do the trick in the meantime:
“It’s not just about asking ‘is this true or false?’ Ask yourself who benefits from you understanding things in this way.” She said. “Narrative is never neutral. It’s always strategic, and always benefits someone.”
Dr. Maan and her Narrative Strategies team provide tailor-made training for American and allied military efforts, though even she reluctantly admits there’s a greater interest in the field from the international community.
The United States remains reluctant to directly address the power manipulated perception can have on the nation — that is, as a whole. Individual elements, like SOCOM, have already sought Dr. Maan’s expertise as a means to better address narratives as a threat, and Dr. Maan hopes that’s the beginning of a new trend. After all, the majority of her colleagues are special operations veterans and former intelligence professionals – few could be better equipped to help deliver a better understanding of these issues to America’s defense apparatus.
“I can talk about soft power and non-kinetic approaches all day from an academic standpoint, but these veterans, who have used the kinetic approach in the military and understand that managing the narrative can be a more effective long term solution, provide the endeavor with even more credibility.”
Dr. Maan’s new book, “Narrative Warfare,” is on sale now, and can be found here.
Image courtesy of Narrative Strategies