War Propaganda as “Weaponized Narrative”

Weaponized Narrative Is the New Battlespace is a fascinating and highly perceptive take on the use of manipulating narrative to impact culture. The idea is that individuals, institutions, and nations are using disinformation campaigns to manipulate others to their bidding through the creation of easy-to-understand stories that support the interests of the storyteller. Technology is the bad guy.

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 conflict; 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 reflect a shift to a “post-factual” political and cultural environment that is vulnerable to weaponized narrative.

The writers, however, Brad Allenby and Joel Garreau, oo-directors of The Weaponized Narrative Initiative of the Center on the Future of War, a partnership of Arizona State University and the Washington think tank New America, make four critical errors in their own narrative.

  1. The most glaring is that the entire concept is framed within a modernist world view where top-down, one-to-many-communications is the operating mechanism for communicating deceit. This embraces the worship of order, the vision of a psychopath (benevolent or otherwise) seated at a command and control desk pushing levers this way and that with a sinister smile enveloping a cigarette that appears to have been there for at least a week. Elevating this to an act of war is old wine in new wineskins, because reality isn’t nearly as Orwellian as the fear-mongers would have us believe.
  2. The second error works with the first. It’s a blindness to the disruption created by the bottom of today’s communications pyramid being able to talk with each other and back “up” to the top. This ability turns mass marketing on its head, although you’d be hard-pressed to find any institution that will embrace it. Some political types are tapping the space, but it is always with the assumption that it can be used to get others to pass their narrative around. This is just more modernist thinking, and the future will include educating the bottom in such a way that fooling them will get more and more difficult. I realize some will call this utopian, because it’s too chaotic and we still live in a time where a disruption to order can only be dystopian. I reject this assumption. At best, therefore, this “weaponized narrative” is temporary and not systemic, as the writers believe.
  3. Thirdly, while presented as something new, it really isn’t. Controlling narrative has been around for centuries. It was practiced by the Roman Church until the printing press allowed the laity to access that which had been reserved for the priesthood, and everything changed. It was called “propaganda” by the father of public relations Edward Bernays, a social engineer who used a form of weaponized narrative on behalf of his clients, including the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Bernays was a member of the Creel Committee, organized by Woodrow Wilson to help America justify getting into World War I. If this isn’t “weaponized narrative,” I don’t know what it is.
  4. Finally, how does one pen an article about weaponized narrative without mentioning the real experts at the practice, Israel? The fear of being tagged antisemite blocks all reason when it comes to investigating this phenomenon, for not only is Israel writing the book on how to weaponize narrative, they are doing it in full view of everybody. Within the public information office of the State of Israel are special departments who work with companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to quash anything they view as “incitement” against the crimes they commit daily in the Middle East. This is a frightening reality, for Israel can turn any event into self-defense, regardless of the heinousness of crime. It truly boggles the mind that two highly intelligent people can publish an introductory article on a concept so important without even a mention of the successful efforts of hasbara.

The article also presents America as behind other players in the world in this skill, but the jury is still out on that one. It’s self-serving in the spirit of the Shirky Principle, for the effort the writers are leading attempts to understand weaponized narrative and present solutions. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt here, for the article really does present some brilliant thinking and prose:

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.

It’s easy to critical, but this is not nitpicking. The solution to any form of totalitarianism is along the bottom of the new communications pyramid, and I don’t think these manipulative storytellers can count on ignorance forever.

BONUS LINK:  U.S. To Build A “Weaponized Narrative” Into The Future Of War

Netanyahu’s ISIS claim

Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Lieberman visit the scene of the truck-ramming in Jerusalem, January 8, 2017. RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s English language videos have long hinted (to Americans) that our shared enemy is ISIS, while almost all of the violence Israel experiences is brought about by its occupation of the West Bank, its dehumanizing behavior towards Palestinians, and the responding attacks by those being “occupied.” So when he claims a knowing form of solidarity with Western governments over attacks by ISIS, those claims ring hollow at core. The Israeli narrative needs an attack by ISIS to validate its position that their fight is against an enemy bigger than the occupation.

This is why it’s not surprising to read that Bibi is trying to connect the deaths of four IDF soldiers over the weekend to ISIS, although the similarity of someone using a truck to ram a crowd of people is much more likely to have been opportunistic. Here’s the way Haaretz put it.

As far as the prime minister is concerned, the ISIS theory is well suited to the message he tried to convey – which is that Jerusalem, like Berlin and Nice, is just another western city dealing with brutal, uncompromising terror committed by global Islamic operatives. As per this message, this force of absolute evil has no motive or rationale, and has nothing to do with the occupation or any other Israeli policy.

The apartheid state of Israel is a bubbling laboratory of narrative control by governing authorities attempting to justify as righteous their provocative behavior towards the indigenous residents of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. The nationalist Netanyahu has found himself a staunch ally in our President-Elect, who has promised to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, to a spot not far from this weekend’s deadly truck ramming.

If you honestly think we’re helping the situation with such a provocation, you’re just not paying attention to what’s taking place.

 

Israeli soldier guilty…or not!

For the first time since 2004, a member of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has been convicted of manslaughter in the death of a Palestinian who had earlier participated in the stabbing of another soldier in the West Bank community of Hebron last March. The conviction of sergeant Elor Azarya was applauded by military leaders who are trying to maintain discipline through a code of ethics, but the big story is the remarkable reaction of an Israeli public that thinks Azarya should not even have been charged. He wouldn’t have had another Palestinian not videotaped the shooting and made the video public. Watch for yourself as Azaria first helps put the slightly injured soldier into an ambulance, then pulls his rifle, and kills the helpless man on the ground.

Azarya’s supporters said he fired in self-defense. Right. Military commanders, however, said his actions were unbecoming of a soldier.

Azarya will be sentenced on January 15th, but he is likely to be pardoned, given the protests by Israelis and statements by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“We have one army that is the basis for our existence. IDF soldiers are our sons and daughters, and they must remain above all disputes,” he said. But making no direct mention of the military court, he said: “I support granting a pardon to Elor Azaria.”

This incredible turn of events reveals the extent of anger and hatred towards Palestinians from people who honestly believe the man that Azarya killed “deserved to die” as a terrorist. That the execution was extrajudicial matters not one bit to this mob. But this also reveals how deeply Israeli hasbara has penetrated the very souls of the people who call Israel home and the impossibility of peace in the face of that narrative.

I repeat to my American journalist colleagues that Israel is home to the most remarkable laboratory for the study of human nature and the manufacture of consent that exists in the Twenty-First Century. It is a textbook case of the conflict between narratives in the quest for political advantage and historical validation, and the justified violence of such a conflict. It is not as simple – nor is it as complicated – as you might think, and I challenge reporters everywhere to do their jobs in covering the truth of the region.

Trust me; you have no idea based on what’s published in the American press.