The fourth panel of the workshop, moderated by Jeffrey Johnson, University of Florida, and Sara Cobb, George Mason University, focused on the relationship between narrative and power. Johnson opened the session by noting that it would address such questions as (1) how narratives vary across cultures and how those narratives clash, (2) what the outcomes of clashing narratives might be, and (3) how narrative might be used as a tool for mobilizing intervention.
Narrative is a way of organizing, giving meaning to, and creating understanding of our experiences, explained James Phelan of Ohio State University. His rhetorical definition of narrative—somebody telling somebody else on some occasion and for some purpose(s) that something happened—emphasizes the importance of tellers, audiences, and purposes. The teller gives shape to the raw material underlying the narrative (primarily events and characters in space and over time) by choosing some techniques rather than others, some way of arranging and emphasizing aspects of that raw material. The teller makes those shaping choices in light of his or her purpose and audiences. In any nonfiction narrative, Phelan noted, the raw material exists independently of its treatment, and thus it can be shaped in different ways by different tellers. Thus, any nonfiction narrative can be contested by one or more others.
Phelan went on to identify a number of variables used to adjudicate competing narratives. One is an appeal to the phenomena being explained.
As an example, Phelan cited raw material that is captured in a way that is coherent and precise so that it appeals to logic. He also gave the example of an appeal based on the position and perspective of the teller or audience, noting that the teller is likely to privilege his or her particular point of view, and the audience can either accept or reject the narrative. He pointed to relative power as another relevant factor, explaining that someone with power will present a narrative aimed at preserving that power, while someone without power can use narrative as a way of gaining power. Knowing and understanding the source of the narrative is also key, he suggested, noting that the reputation, trustworthiness, and credibility of the teller are all considerations in assessing the narrative. He added, however, that, regardless of the source’s credibility and trustworthiness, the narrative must also serve the audience’s interests for them to accept it. Finally, he pointed out that for one narrative to win over another, it must be disseminated to reach the desired audience at the appropriate time.
Phelan also discussed the role of narrative in mobilization and intervention. Using fiction as an example, he introduced the audience to what he called mimetic and thematic links. In fiction, he explained, a character can be thought of as having both mimetic and thematic components. The mimetic component identifies the way a character is a possible person, and the thematic component identifies the way a character is a representative figure (of a group and/or one or more ideas). According to Phelan, effective narratives make a seamless connection between their mimetic and thematic components, and in so doing, “marshal cognition, affect, and values in the service of an idea or certain positions.”
A major source of conflict between narratives is difference in cultural values, Phelan explained. Cultural values, he elaborated, reflect the organizing schemas used to understand and construct hierarchies among experiences within a culture (e.g., good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, better vs. worse). He highlighted the recent #MeToo movement as an example, suggesting that the success of the movement both reveals and contributes to a shift in cultural values. Although no one before the movement would have openly argued that sexual misconduct by powerful men against less powerful women was a good thing, he said, the culture has shifted to openly denouncing such behavior. His last point was that moving beyond the conflicts that arise with competing narratives requires some recognition of common ground or agreement on the part of those involved.
As a marketer, Debra Louison Lavoy, Narrative Builders, routinely works with public and private organizations to develop influential narratives. She defined narrative as “an interconnected set of beliefs that influ-
ence the way you interpret the meaning of things.” Narratives are very powerful, she asserted, because once a narrative has been internalized by the audience, it can affect how people see the world and their attitudes and behaviors.
Louison Lavoy went on to explain that digital marketers have learned two ways to wield power: by constructing narratives and by disseminating narratives via digital channels so that others can be persuaded by them. She has developed a heuristic that includes five measures—presentation, clarity, resonance, sharability, and organization—for evaluating the power of a narrative. She then expounded on each of these measures in turn:
- Presentation includes such visual and auditory components as music, word choice, and font. Furthermore, because it is important to be able to reach and engage a wide audience, addressing such issues as accessibility is also important.
- Clarity is a measure of how well the narrative message is received by the audience: “Can I understand your story, your narrative once you have explained it to me?”
- Resonance includes emotional resonance (connecting to emotions that matter to the listener), intellectual resonance (credibility), and echo (whether the narrative is similar to others that are already part of the psyche).
- Given the increasing importance of social media, sharability may be the most important measure, Louison Lavoy noted. She cited linking the narrative to other content and actively encouraging the audience to share the narrative with others as the two most important components for sharability.
- Finally, organization refers to the structure of the narrative. Louison Lavoy explained that a structured narrative should first address why it matters, adding that the teller must also consider how to convey a particular vision to the audience in a way that makes sense to them. Another component of organizing a narrative for public consumption is what she called the “offer” or “ask.” For example, she said, nongovernmental organizations and politicians will often ask for volunteers, donations, or votes.
Louison Lavoy added to this list that testimonials, data, and other forms of evidence can be proof that a message is credible and not “too good to be true.”
Louison Lavoy closed with the point that while narratives can share positive messages, they can also be used to spread toxic ones. A narrative is considered toxic, she explained, when it is “intentionally based on false or misleading information.” To counteract toxic messages, she suggested that
researchers consider studying how marketing strategies might be incorporated into social science theory to (1) identify and block toxic campaigns, (2) inoculate populations against them, and (3) develop countermessages.
Michael Bamberg, Clark University, began by asserting that when talking about the power of narrative, one should also talk about narrative emotion. He explained that while narrative emotion is typically studied by looking at text arrangement or character positioning, researchers can also examine how plot is used. Approximately 32 forms of plot exist, he added, each of which uses a different approach to emotional engagement.
The power of narrative can also be studied by observing and listening to speakers and the reactions they create in an audience, Bamberg continued. Rather than studying text arrangement, for example, researchers might observe a speaker’s body language. Word arrangement is still relevant, Bamberg noted, but it plays more of a supporting role, and the narrative is analyzed as a kind of performance. He added that the delivery of a message is also different in narratives expressed verbally and visually, so that, for example, a speaker wishing to induce feelings of empathy must behave in a particular way, while a speaker seeking forgiveness must look down to demonstrate regret. Thus, he asserted, the body and mind must work cooperatively to portray a convincing narrative.
Bamberg then identified three dimensions of narrative that are connected to the subject of power, each of which relates to value. First is agency, or the degree of control the character or narrator has in the situation. Bamberg explained that a character with low agency is one who is being affected primarily by external forces rather than exerting force on them, citing the example of someone who has somehow been violated. High and low agency are connected to such values as blame and responsibility, he noted, and there is a certain degree of moral order at stake when agency is navigated.
The second dimension Bamberg highlighted is the similarities and differences among various groups and individuals, studied in the disciplines of social linguistics and social psychology. He explained that this dimension encompasses group behavior, affiliations, belonging, and such categories as gender, race, and ethnicity.
Bamberg characterized the third dimension, temporal contour, as probably the most important, explaining that it includes states of change, development, and constancy. For example, he said, a character may express that he or she has—or has not—changed or grown in some way as the result of something that has happened. Temporal contour, he asserted, is
the most relevant dimension in narrative because it can be found in all types of discourse.
Bamberg closed by briefly comparing master narratives and counternarratives. He explained that, like the big stories he had described in the first panel (see Chapter 2), master narratives are the background narratives used to make sense of the larger world. Without them, he added, people would not be able to communicate or make sense of the world. Counternarratives, on the other hand, are the narratives people create in their minds within the larger master narratives. Bamberg suggested that, while he is not a quantitative researcher, it would be worthwhile to study the relationship between master narratives and counternarratives using quantitative methods.
Questions raised during the discussion focused on countering and inoculating the public against toxic narratives. A participant asked Louison Lavoy to discuss how the idea of inoculating the public from toxic narratives might be approached from the perspective of national security. One method that could be useful, she responded, is message testing. When designing a communications plan, she continued, marketers will test messages by buying ads that can be distributed easily and quickly online. If the message is well received online, she said, they will encourage influencers, customers, and employees to spread the message across their personal and professional networks. However, she noted, this is also one of the methods used by state and nonstate actors to spread false messages.
Louison Lavoy identified as another effective method what is called “chaining.” Like message testing, she observed, chaining has also been used successfully to spread false messages. She cited the example of Russia, which used media chaining as way to disrupt the 2016 presidential election in a process that involves picking up messages from fringe groups and amplifying them just enough so that they are then picked up by other groups. The process is then repeated until the message moves from the fringe groups into more established groups, ultimately reaching mainstream society. Louison Lavoy added that individuals can also be brought into the chaining process if their actions are rewarded with additional social media attention (e.g., “likes,” sharing content). However, she pointed out that if marketing techniques can be used to spread false messages, they can also be used to block and counter such messages. Johnson added that people with high credibility and social capital are also key to blocking and countering false messages. He has, for example, observed that when well-respected members of a group question the validity of a story, other members, even those with extreme views, will often do the same.
On the subject of inoculation, Cobb cited a recent study in which Israeli
adolescents from conservative and liberal communities were exposed to stories that opposed the viewpoints with which they had grown up.1 The researchers found, she said, that while the students from liberal communities changed their views after listening to the stories, the conservative students did not. She added that the liberal students also reported feeling better about themselves after hearing the conservative message. She highlighted as well the Seeds of Peace Summer Camp Program,2 which brings Israeli and Palestinian adolescents together to encourage peace. She noted that before returning home, the adolescents must practice countering negative messages. With the use of scenario building and role-playing techniques, she explained, students can develop new narrative pathways that help preserve the understanding and empathy created by their experiences at camp. Johnson suggested that the way a story is told can make a difference in how it is received. Stories expressed using clear and easy-to-understand language, he observed, are more likely to be accepted by large audiences, adding that if the stories follow a clear narrative arc and are repeated continuously, they become even more compelling.
Raising the subject of behavioral economics, one participant asked the panelists what they thought of the use of nudge theory,3 which suggests that a person’s choices can be influenced by how information is presented, as a way of exerting power. Phelan responded that nudge is only one strategy available, and it is important to consider which strategy will work based on a particular situation. While the nudge strategy may be useful in some circumstances, he suggested, it may not be the right strategy in other cases. Louison Lavoy commented that, while she is not familiar with nudge theory, the term reminded her of the chaining method she had discussed earlier. Chaining, she elaborated, is a way of distributing propaganda so that it slowly creates a narrative pathway, and the narrative eventually becomes part of the audience’s normal mental processing. Nudge theory reminded Bamberg of a series of social campaigns in China addressing such issues as aging. Although the videos used in this campaign are only about 60 seconds long and contain only music and visuals, he explained, they still manage to communicate very emotional and compelling narratives that are capable of influencing people.
Another participant brought up the clash between what she referred to as the scientific myth (i.e., scientific narratives) and other myths (e.g.,
1 Porat, D.A. (2004). It’s not written here, but this is what happened: Students’ cultural comprehension of textbook narratives on the Israeli-Arab conflict. American Educational Research Journal, 41(4), 963–996.
3 Thaler, R.H., Sunstein, C.R., and Pratt, S. (2014). Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. New York: Penguin Group.
more emotional narratives, such as those that relate to religion, politics, and culture). She suggested that someone standing in the scientific myth seeking to communicate effectively with someone standing in the religious myth must also stand in the religious myth. In other words, she argued, “if we are going to make any headway in this issue of power and narratives . . . we have to be able to stand within someone else’s master narrative to be heard.” Louison Lavoy suggested that one of the ways this might be done is for people to identify areas of commonality, such as shared values, and then communicate with each other based on those commonalities.
Another participant noted that some people have been so inundated with toxic narratives online that they no longer believe sources of information they once trusted. As a result, she argued, they are more susceptible to false messages that lead them to mistrust the Intelligence Community and other government agencies. She wondered how it might be possible to counter those messages. In response, Louison Lavoy suggested that, to counter and inoculate against false messages, society must find a way to rebuild a shared reality that will encourage positive forms of communication. Johnson added that it might be worthwhile to study available metadata to identify those people likely to be susceptible to these types of toxic narratives so that they can be inoculated against them. Louison Lavoy highlighted Ocean Protocol4 as a recently developed framework holding data that could be used to measure susceptibility. However, she added, that information could be used for either positive or negative purposes.
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