Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Narratives are about ‘meaning,’ not ‘truth’

There is considerable confusion about ideas and narratives — about the difference and which does what.


By Ajit Maan
Best Defense office of narrative affairs

There is considerable confusion about ideas and narratives — about the difference and which does what. We constantly see comments such as:

“We Are Losing the narrative battle” 

By Ajit Maan
Best Defense office of narrative affairs

There is considerable confusion about ideas and narratives — about the difference and which does what. We constantly see comments such as:

“We Are Losing the narrative battle” 

“We Are Losing the Battle of Ideas”

“ISIS Is Not Winning The War Of Ideas”

That ambiguity leaves us unable to determine what is working and what is not. If we are not clear about what sort of non-kinetic battle we are in, claims about winning and losing are premature. Worse, the vast power of narrative remains untapped and relegated to the domain of Information Operations and “messaging” within it. Messaging is associated with “spin” or propaganda, and then leaves some disillusioned with the potential of any kind of non-kinetic approach to counter extremism.

The title of a recent Atlantic article, and its primary assertion, “ISIS is Not Winning the War of Ideas,” is followed by the subtitle and secondary assertion, “The Islamic State isn’t succeeding because of the strength of its narrative. It’s succeeding because it can mobilize a microscopic minority.” These paired assertions evidence the common conflation between ideas and narratives and a misunderstanding about how each functions. It is the narrative that is doing the mobilizing.

I don’t think ISIS is winning the war of ideas. They have some pretty lame-brained ideas. But the ideas are not what are operating. They have a very functional robust narrative and it is working. It is working well. But are they winning? Let’s sort it out.

1. Ideas and Narratives are Different Things.

Often ideas inform narratives — the most influential ideas are presented in narrative form. But more fundamentally, narratives form our ideas.






Narrative is not just a mode of communication, messaging, explanation or description. It is operating at the most basic neurological level of perception, thought (both conscious and unconscious), and most fundamentally, identity.

Through narrative we co-construct our personal and cultural identities. Ideas and beliefs result from those identities, and actions follow. Combined research in philosophycognitive science, and neurobiology is demonstrating how narrative exposure affects biological and cognitive processes including neurotransmission. That effect can be seen clearly on neuroimaging of the “This is your brain. This is your brain on narratives” variety.

DARPA is currently using neuroimaging to determine precisely what features internal to narratives interrupt or facilitate narrative comprehension and they have uncovered structural features, not just content, that impacts narrative influence. This finding has tremendous relevance for strategic narratives to counter terrorist recruitment, including, I would add, an imperative to examine cultural assumptions beyond what narratives are about but also how they proceed.

Ideas, on the other hand, have no inherent strategy. Ideas alone do not mobilize action — not until they are narrated.

The simplest form of an idea is an assertion, for example, “Islam is under attack.” People often mistake this simple assertion as the Islamic State’s narrative. It is not.

“Islam is under attack” is a simply asserted idea. And it is the title of an ISIS narrative. But it is not the narrative itself. The narrative lies in the assignment of motivation and meaning to all the events that support the title – attacks on Muslim populations (including “attacks” by apostates) starting with the Crusades in the 7th century, moving forward into the present, and projected into the future anticipated conflict in Dubiq.

The potential for narrative strategies in warfare and peace-building has barely been tapped. What is needed is a more nuanced understanding of what narrative is and how it functions/influences.

2. Narratives are about meaning, not truth

Ideas are almost always true or false. Narratives are successful or not, interesting or not, influential or not, but narratives do not rely upon truth-value for their success. That is why ISIS ideology doesn’t have to be grounded in truth; the narrative carries the day.

Islam may be under attack, or it may not be. The assertion may be true or it may be false. The point is it doesn’t matter. The assertion alone is not mobilizing. To mobilize action, a narrative is needed. An idea can be logically unsound and still be influential if it is housed in a powerful narrative.

But that doesn’t mean we should assume a dichotomy between narrative and truth. It means that to understand its power we need to get beyond thinking of narrative as just communication (true or false messaging). If we don’t, then we don’t understand the power of extremist messaging. Their messages are not judged by their truth value. In fact, they are not rationally judged except by us.

Credibility, not truth, is an important aspect of narrative influence. In order to assure credibility, the narrator needs be viewed as credible. That means it would be most effective if the narrator is “in” the target group. If that is not possible, the narrative should be shared by civilians rather than state or military representatives. The narrative itself, in order to be received as credible, must reflect the experiences of the audience.

That is different from reflecting “reality” or “truth.” There are realities that are more essential, more basic, than specific realities on the ground. The ISIS narrative resonates off the ground. Particular facts and falsehoods are immune to correction because the power of the narrative lies in the interpretation of the facts. To judge a narrative by its truth value is to weigh it on the wrong scale in a way that accommodates new events, losses, hits, mistakes, even air strikes, into its narrative..

Narrative is like poetry. It doesn’t make sense to say a poem is untrue or inaccurate. Truth is irrelevant to poetry. What is relevant is that it strikes a cord in experience. The same is true of narrative.

We tend to judge other people’s narratives consciously and rationally and then only if they do not compliment our own. Our own narratives, the narratives we live by, are not usually rationally judged or constructed. Most often they are uncritically inherited. Our own perceptions, and resulting behaviors, are influenced (some would even say determined) by the narratives we are a part of. The same is true for those living by alternative narratives.

In an adversarial situation it is a mistake to understand the opposition’s narrative as a rational construction. And if we are looking at a rational construction, it is usually a message of the variety developed by IO. But the message is not what is really motivating behavior. A successful message taps into the larger motivating narrative. And that narrative is usually an identity narrative.

So, back to the question: Who is winning? Narrative conflict will not be “won” by defeating the adversary’s narrative. Success will require the construction of a shared narrative that leaves the identities of all parties in-tact while putting forth an alternative to violent behaviors working to keep them that way.

Ajit Maan, Ph.D. is Vice-President of Research and Analysis, ENODO Global, affiliate faculty, Center for Narrative Conflict Resolution, George Mason University, author of Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, and editor of the blog:

Photo credit: Loren Javier/Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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