Note #21. Narratives as Social Strategies in the Information Environment

  • Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF (ret)
  • Cyber, Security, Strategy
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Narratives present advantages in any conflict because they influence resolve and if ignored, can reverse operational victories. What are they?

What Are Narratives?

Narratives are cultural contexts that underlie stories and provide meaning. Stories go on top of narratives, and are more obvious in social media. To spot a narrative as strategy, the question what is meaningful? helps discern the goal. The goal often is to enhance consciousness of an identity or set of values.

A narrative basically consists of structure and content. Most structures are chronological: a beginning, middle and end.[1] Others include insider-outsider relations, social networks, and space-time geometry.[2] Any spatial or ideational construct can be filled with content to create distinctions in narratives that a targeted audience cares about — conspiracy-trust, justice-injustice, love-hate, realism-idealism, randomness-order, dualism-monism, absolutism- relativism, and so forth. 

Examples of Narratives and How They Work

To appreciate how an underlying narrative imparts meaning, consider these versions of a national identity, followed by a narrative that interprets that identity.

  • Identity: being American means valuing democracy, freedom and equality. 
    • Narrative: a populist narrative is self-reliant individualism; the idea that Americans overcome challenges and build a better future through innovation, persistence, and courage. 
  • Identity: being Chinese means identifying with the harmony of a China-centric civilization.
    • Narrative: a Communist Party narrative is that Chinese struggle to overcome foreign imperialism by reclaiming lost territories and regaining respect as a great power.
  • Identity: being Iranian means being conscious of Persian civilization’s heritage, culture and status.
    • Narrative: a narrative among ruling theocrats is that Iranians must prepare for the apocalyptic return of the 12th Imam,[3] while guarding against Western subversion and domination.

Narratives are contentious—as in balancing individual freedom with collective equality, imposing single-Party harmony without imperialism, or sustaining an Islamic revolution run by elites. They animate divisive stories, which social media influencers gladly distribute as witting or unwitting proxies.

Why Are Narratives Important?

Narratives are powerful, so if we don’t track them, Black Swans emerge that should not have been surprises but for our own failure to think critically. The power of narratives is strongest when beliefs provide meaning to stories. For instance…

In Iran, the US and British-supported coup (1953) that ousted democratically elected Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh and installed Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi fed a persistent anti-colonialist narrative.[4] Exploiting the Shah’s position as illegitimate, Marja (“source to follow”) Ruhollah Khomeini built a pan-Islamic, anti-imperialist, anti-West narrative that incited revolutionary Shiism. While exiled to Turkey then Iraq, he helped foment the revolution that overthrew the Shah (1979) and installed himself as the Supreme Leader of theocratic justice.[5]

As noted in ICSL Paper #36, Iran’s narrative today is four-fold: US and Israel are threats; Iran is protector of Islam; Iran must be stronger to establish peace and security; and Iran’s rightly guided Islam is the basis for social order. That narrative becomes weaponized as the content is structured, re-described, internalized, and prescribed.[6]

Time for DIMES

Narratives help identify social vulnerabilities that threats exploit and that our strategies should mitigate. Irreconcilable narratives are vulnerabilities in information-rich societies, enabling threat-actors to polarize communities at will. Mitigating that threat requires more than technologies that spot, flag or block information. Social strategies (the “S” in DIMES—Diplomatic, Informational, Military, Economic, Social) can increase awareness of narratives and promote toleration of legitimate differences. Both awareness and toleration are needed to avoid doing the work of threat-actors for them. 

Narrative strategies generate disproportionate impact in societies. For instance, internet freedom is a debated human right in democracies, but demonized as a threat to sovereignty in authoritarian regimes. Differences in freedom of expression empower authoritarian threats to incite more allowable divisiveness in their targets, since democracies guarantee more civil rights. Indicators of democratization vary[7] as does local discontent, but in terms of proportional impact, democracies have the advantage. 

While democracies’ ability to incite divisiveness in authoritarian regimes is absolutely weaker due to state surveillance and repressive control, what does get in is proportionally more threatening to the regime. Protests over elections, religious practices and party authority are disruptive in democracies, but are illegitimate in Putin’s Russia, theocratic Iran and communist China. In authoritarian regimes, narrative strategy converts to narrative warfare—the use of narratives to destroy acquired values. 

Narrative strategy that asserts desirable values is often perceived as destroying contending values. Community-level knowledge of cultures is a must to anticipate such interactions. Just as the digitization of resources and processes provides advantages in creating and capturing value for businesses, changes in predominant values can be disruptive innovations.[8] The emergence of for-hire hackers and zero-day marketeers sought by states or any highest bidder can become a justificatory narrative of that network as it increases wealth and power.

The insidious nature of emergent norms of behavior is why paying attention to narratives as social strategies is important.  


[1] Ajit Maan, Dangerous Narratives: Warfare, Strategy, Statecraft, Narrative Strategies Ink, pp. ix.

[2] A “matter”- focused explanation of the universe’s four-dimensional geometry—space plus space-time—is provided by Jonathan Allday, Space-Time: An Introduction to Einstein’s Theory of Gravity, CRC Press, 2019. For a paper that adds “consciousness” to “matter” see Asutosh Kumar, Matter, Consciousness and Causality: -Space, Time, Measurement and more, Magadh University, 27 March 2019, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/332004954

[3] The Twelver sect of Shia Islam believes in a messianic Mahdi (“rightly guided one”) “hidden” in 941, and who will return with Isa (Jesus Christ) to bring a just peace to the world. The Supreme Leader rules in the name of the 12th Imam.

[4] The power of the anti-colonial narrative is so strong that an academic petition objecting to a pro-colonial narrative by Gilley and Loux persuaded Lexington Books to not publish the book. See https://www.change.org/p/academics-against-bruce-gilley-s-colonial-apologetics.

[5] On the the Iranian Revolution as an outcome of Persian identity politics, see Ali Mirsepassi, Iran’s Quiet Revolution: The Downfall of the Pahlavi State, Cambridge University Press, 2019.

[6] This four-stage narrative weaponization model is described in Ajit Maan, Plato’s Fear, Narrative Strategies Ink, 2020, pp. 20-25.

[7] In 2020, the proportion of countries assessed as full or flawed democracies was 45%; authoritarian or hybrid regimes comprised 55%. This method assessed elections, voter security, foreign influence, and civil service. See Democracy Index 2020: In sickness and in health?, The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited, 2021, p. 56.

[8] On changing resources, processes and values, see Clayton Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma: Meeting the Challenge of Disruptive Change, Harvard Business School Publishing, 1997, pp. 183-204.

Author: Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF (ret)

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