Saturday, March 09, 2013

The Official Story: Narrating Public Myth, from PsyOps to NeurOps

August 4, 2013, update to this post: Narrative Science is a company that helps businesses communicate by turning data into stories. The company's software program, Quill, "is an artificial intelligence engine that generates, evaluates and gives voice to ideas as it discovers them in data." The company's website elaborates:
"Quill imports your data and builds an appropriate narrative structure to meet the goals of your audience. Using complex Artificial Intelligence algorithms, Quill extracts and organizes key facts and insights and transforms them into stories, at scale. Quill uses data to answer important questions, provide advice and deliver powerful insight in a precise, clear narrative."
That ability could come in handy. For the CIA. 

The intelligence agency's business-investment arm, In-Q-Tel, has contributed an undisclosed amount of funding to Narrative Science. My original post, below, might explain why the CIA is pursuing the engineering of stories. The agency is out to weaponize narrative.
* * *
Once upon a time, there was a public policy think tank at the University of Virginia, called the Miller Center. In October 1998, the Center invited historians, editors and journalists to mull over “the state of the art” in political history. There was a problem to be addressed, which apparently was that historical narrative had slipped through the hands of its rightful authors. And with it went those failing authors’ control of public sentiment. Implied in the conference’s mission was the felt need to figure out not only how this situation came about, but also how history’s rightful authors could recapture the historical narrative. Controlling narratives, people in high places seem to believe, facilitates controlling mass behavior, making it a subject worth study.

The Conference on Contemporary Political History kicked off with remarks from then director of the Miller Center, Philip Zelikow. (A few years later, during a leave from his directorship, Zelikow kept on a short leash the Kean-Hamilton Commission, also known as the 911 Commission, which he steered as its staff executive director.) In his opening remarks to the history conference, Zelikow laid out his concerns regarding contemporary political history:
“’Contemporary’” is defined functionally by those critical people and events that go into forming the public’s presumptions about its immediate past. This idea of ‘public presumption’ is akin to William McNeill’s notion of ‘public myth’ but without the negative implication sometimes invoked by the word ‘myth.’ Such presumptions are beliefs (1) thought to be true (although not necessarily known to be true with certainty), and (2) shared in common within the relevant political community. The sources for such presumptions are both personal (from direct experience) and vicarious (from books, movies, and myths).”
(All quotes from Zelikow are from the Miller Center Report, Vol. 14, No. 3, Winter 1999.) We will return later to McNeill and public myth. First, we need to follow Zelikow into the sources of public presumption. He identifies four:
”First, public presumptions can be ‘generational.’ They are formed by those pivotal events that become etched in the minds of those who have lived through them [. . . ]. The current set begins in approximately 1933, although the New Deal generation is fading. The Second World War and Vietnam, however, continue to resonate powerfully.
“Second, particularly ‘searing’ or ‘molding’ events take on ‘transcendent’ importance and, therefore, retain their power even as the experiencing generation passes from the scene. In the United States, beliefs about the formation of the nation and the Constitution remain powerful today, as do beliefs about slavery and the Civil War. World War II, Vietnam, and the civil rights struggle are more recent examples.
“Third, public presumptions often concern 'dramatic stories plucked out of time,' such as the Alamo, Pickett’s Charge, or the Titanic.
“Fourth, some public presumptions gain currency because they have a particular resonance for us today, either because they invoke powerful analogies to the present [. . . .] or because they offer a causal link and seem to explain ‘why we are the way we are today.’ Taken together, we see that presumptions that remain ‘contemporary’ are—with few exceptions from the 18th and 19th centuries—events and episodes from the last 60 years.”
Depending on which conspiracy theory one subscribes to, that of the Bush administration and the Kean–Hamilton Commission or some variety suggested by the 911 Truth Movement, it takes little imagination to perceive in Zelikow’s assessment a premonition or foreshadowing of events to come, his remarks about searing events taking on transcendent importance being uttered just three years prior to the attacks of 9/11.

And nowhere in his comments will one find any concern that public presumptions should reflect history accurately.

Having covered contemporary presumptions, Zelikow moves on to political history and offers this characterization:
“Political history is the history of how individual people or public organizations made a difference in public life. This conception does not include the history of changes in the private lives of individuals, but rather changes in their shared public life. [. . . ] A history’s narrative power is typically linked to how readers relate to the actions of individuals in the history; if readers cannot make a connection to their own lives, then a history may fail to engage them at all. In slightly different terms, readers are drawn to histories that help answer how the choices of individuals in the past either ‘affect me’ or ‘instruct me.’”
It seems the conference participants worried that historians had wandered off script and needed to be corralled. They needed to be reminded of their proper place, which, as the Miller Center evidently would have it, is to manufacture narratives that attract and hold broad-based loyalties. That seems to be the suggested measure of the truth of any given historical narrative, and by which measure scriptural tales of the supernatural, for example, no matter how dubious their historicity, qualify as histories par excellence.

Harvard historian Ernest R.May then offered to the conference four proposals to stimulate discussion and debate, because political history in the United States “needs a boost.” Presumably, he provided such a boost when he served alongside Zelikow on the 911 Commission. His role there? "My job was to help produce the historical narrative." Here are my paraphrases of his comments at the history conference, which appear beside those of Zelikow in the same edition of the Miller Center Report.
  1. Historians have abdicated to pollsters and political scientists, who now claim to possess the “useful” information.
  2. Historians have ignored the popular audience for contemporary political history.
  3. Historians need to assert the usefulness of their work to a broader audience.
  4. Historians fail to see themselves as educators. May comments, “Lacking such a self-image, most historians do not approach their scholarship with an intent to engage a general audience. But we should.”
It looks like ivory-tower syndrome is a cause of the malady being diagnosed, and, apparently, the remedy has to do with historians rubbing shoulders more casually with men in the street. Standards of scholarship seem not to be an issue with May either, so long as historians can manufacture narratives that engage the public. But what are the parameters of narratives that engage?

Another notable addressing the conference was Donald Lamm, then chairman of publishing giant W. W. Norton. Lamm offered tips and observations about crafting more salable political memoirs (again, my paraphrases):
  1. Forget the blunderbuss. Brevity sells.
  2. The public has little appetite for dissections of policy.
  3. The public has big appetite for scandal.
  4. Fear of litigation sanitizes narratives.
Presumably, then, the formula for a commercially successful political memoir—one that will be assimilable by the market and so be in a position to shape public presumptions—includes few pages, complex issues explained with non-technical glosses, prurience, and only oblique references to corruption. In combination with Zelikow’s and May’s injunctions to historians to get out and mingle, the supportive advice from the publishing field was, Dumb It Down.

Narrating Public Myth

In his opening remarks to the conference, Zelikow alluded to the notion of “public myth.” The reference was to William H. McNeill’s essay, “The Care and Repair of Public Myth,” which appeared in the Council on Foreign Relations organ, Foreign Affairs, Fall, 1982. McNeill developed in more detail, and in ways that suggest its social-engineering efficacy, the anatomy of historical narrative.
“Myth lies at the basis of human society. That is because myths are general statements about the world and its parts, and in particular about nations and other human in-groups, that are believed to be true and then acted on whenever circumstances suggest or require common response. This is mankind's substitute for instinct. It is the unique and characteristic human way of acting together. A people without a full quiver of relevant agreed-upon statements, accepted in advance through education or less formalized acculturation, soon finds itself in deep trouble, for, in the absence of believable myths, coherent public action becomes very difficult to improvise or sustain. Myths, moreover, are based on faith more than on fact. Their truth is usually proven only by the action they provoke.”
This is a revealing passage. McNeill is saying that public myths are proven true by the “coherent public action” that they evoke. Common myths make a public body cohere and equip it to move as a unit, and that movement confirms the truth of the myth. This peculiarly pragmatic notion of truth assigns considerable social clout to the myth makers to manufacture public consent and dissent and action or inaction. He continues:
“[T]he natural and human worlds are not the same. Their great difference arises from the sensitivity of human behavior to symbolic stimuli. Physicists, after all, need not concern themselves with how particles of matter or energy will react to general statements they make about the world: whereas anyone describing human behavior knows that if what is said seems to be true, it will make a difference in how human beings who believe it will act. [. . . . ] Evidence supporting belief is largely generated by actions undertaken in accordance with the belief.”
Here O’Neill implies that an untrue, but official, account of, say, a false flag attack can be rendered true in the mind of the public by the public’s own reaction to the event, despite any lack of empirical evidence for, or any logical coherence to, the official story.

Social psychologists have made similar observations. If experimental subjects can be tricked into behaving in some uncharacteristic way, as under hypnosis, then they often will generate rationalizations for their anomalous behavior once they are confronted with evidence of it. They will observe their own behavior, or evidence of it, and adopt beliefs and offer excuses after the fact to justify their odd actions and explain how the actions only appear odd, how they actually conform to their usual behavior. O’Neill proposes that something like an inverse process also occurs, in which, once a belief is suggested, actions consistent with that belief are taken by the actors to be evidence of the truth of the belief. We can imagine a situation in which, say, a public ceremony memorializes the victims of a sensational crime. Then the participants, even those whose participation consists in investing time to watch the event televised, will be more likely to internalize the official account of the crime. Their own behavior and their observation of it serve the audiences as evidence of the truth of the story.

The difference between the social psychologists’ self-perception theory and O’Neill’s dynamics of public myth is that the former involves manufacturing beliefs to justify elicited behaviors, and the latter involves eliciting behaviors to justify manufactured beliefs. Either approach seems suitable as a tool for social engineering.

O’Neill is concerned with the care and repair of public myth, because, “[W]hen assent becomes halfhearted or is actively withheld from such myths, obedience becomes irregular, and predictability of human action diminishes, and the effectiveness of public response to changing conditions begins to erode.” So, he’s worried that, when faith in some official narrative begins to lag, the public will become harder to manage. There is a terrible arrogance in this attitude, which turns ominously fascistic at the word, “obedience.” O’Neill concedes flatly, “Inherited political faiths are in danger of losing their credibility.” Why? Maybe because, as he also confesses, “[E]verywhere TV acts to undermine the electoral process, tending to reduce it to a popularity contest among tinsel personalities.” He goes on to caution, “The body politic cannot endure without agreement on truths that can be used to guide and justify public action.”

Nazi propaganda cartoon, Hitler as, "The Sculptor of Germany"
Nazi propaganda cartoon from Jugend, 1933, "The Sculptor of Germany."

"When the resulting mix commands enough support to generate
effective common action, logical shortcomings scarcely matter."
Which is to say that the powers that be better get busy manufacturing efficacious new “truths” to prevent the further wandering of public attention. O’Neill’s exposition takes on an increasingly insidious, even Hitlerian, tone when he declares, “What is needed is a suitably charismatic figure with a vision of past and future that millions will find so compelling as to make them eager to join in common action to achieve newly articulated purposes.” This creepy prescription continues,
“The great leader’s role is to put a coalition of new ideas into action, often by dint of overlooking logical discrepancies. When the resulting mix commands enough support to generate effective common action, logical shortcomings scarcely matter. The people who follow the great man’s lead have, in effect, revised their mythical system and can therefore persist as an effective public body for as long as the new myths and action based on them continue to yield acceptable results.”
Acceptable to whom, one might ask. Whatever George W. Bush’s shortcomings as a leader, they were swept from the minds of many people by a widespread willingness simply to overlook the implausibility of the received narrative of September 11, 2001. After all, “logical shortcomings hardly matter.” Audiences for the official story will “persist as an effective public body for as long as the new myths and action based on them continue to yield acceptable results.” And when the results are no longer acceptable, then it’s time for a fresh round of myth making. O’Neill further cautions,
”If historians persist in dodging the important questions of our age in this fashion [by splitting hairs and documenting minority histories], others are sure to step into the breach by offering the necessary mythical answers to human needs. The question then becomes what groupings will take form and gather strength around such myths.”
Given a sufficient vacuum in the Myth department, organically sprouting democratic groupings might take form and gather strength, a prospect that must make the Council on Foreign Relations shudder. Clearly this threat to the upper circles has taken root already and is growing, and it consists of the collection of unofficial stories that the official storytellers attempt to smear with the epithet, "conspiracy theory." In any event, that won’t do, and in the face of such threats, O’Neill concludes,
”Apart from the practical value which serious myth making aspires to, the reality of world society in our day constitutes an intellectual challenge that can be met only by rising to the grandest mythical plane of which we are capable. Only so can the world we live in become intelligible. [. . . . ] Our academic historians have not done well in providing such generalizations of late. Thoughtful men of letters ought therefore to try.”
It would seem then that the task at hand, the intellectual challenge that must be met, before the men of letters can set about crafting new frames to contain the public mind, is a rigorous, scientific study of myths to find out what their parts consist of and how those parts interact to produce narratives that command loyalties. What makes a compelling story tick?

From PsyOps to NeurOps

Not content to wait for men of letters, nor historians, political scientists or journalists, to figure it out, the U.S. Department of Defense, through its Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), undertook to understand these issues not only psychologically, but deeper, physiologically. The Agency undertook to learn what stories do to brains.

In 2011, DARPA posted a Broad Agency Announcement (solicitation number DARPA-BAA-12-03), entitled Narrative Networks, through which it solicited proposals to figure out how to use stories to control brains:
”Synopsis: DARPA is soliciting innovative research proposals in the areas of (1) quantitative analysis of narratives, (2) understanding the effects narratives have on human psychology and its affiliated neurobiology, and (3) modeling, simulating, and sensing—especially in stand-off modalities—these narrative influences. Proposers to this effort will be expected to revolutionize the study of narratives and narrative influence by advancing narrative analysis and neuroscience so as to create new narrative influence sensors, doubling status quo capacity to forecast narrative influence.”
Below are described the three technical areas, and their sub-goals, that the solicitation addresses, edited as indicated for brevity. These goals and sub-goals are worth study as x-ray insights into the minds of aspiring planetary potentates.

Technical Area (TA) One: Narrative Analysis

”The primary goal of Technical Area One is to revolutionize the state of the art in narrative analysis by focusing on the innovative application of tools not traditionally used in that domain. This goal serves to ascertain who is telling stories to whom and for what purpose, and to discover latent indicators of the spread and influence of narrative tropes in structures such as social networks, traditional and social media, and in conversation.”
TA 1 Sub-goal One: Develop new, and extend existing narrative theories. [. . . .]Identify the nature of stories, including, but not limited to, a list of necessary and sufficient conditions that help distinguish narrative stimuli from other stimuli. Identify and explore the kinematics and dynamics of story ontology. Identify and explore the structure and function of narratives, including identifying and discussing aspects of narratives that are universal versus aspects that vary considerably across cultural or social contexts.
TA 1 Sub-goal Two: Identify and understand the role of narrative in security contexts. Determine the role and extent stories play in influencing political violence. Identify and explore the function narratives serve in the process of political radicalization and how they can influence a person or group’s choice of means (such as indiscriminant violence) to achieve political ends. [. . . .] Develop methodologies that enable assessment of the impact of narratives on attitudes and perceptions.
TA 1 Sub-goal Three: Survey and extend the state of the art in narrative analysis and decomposition tools. [. . . .] Identify and develop narrative analysis tools that best establish a framework for the scientific study of the psychological and neurobiological impact of stories on people. [. . . .]

Technical Area Two: Narrative Neurobiology.

[. . ..] Understanding how stories inform neurobiological processes is critical if we are to ascertain what effect stories have on the psychology and neurobiology of human choices and behaviors. The primary goal of Technical Area Two is to revolutionize our understanding of how narratives and stories influence our underlying neurobiology at multiple levels of analysis, ranging from basic neurochemistry, to the systems level, to big-picture system-of-systems analysis. [. . . .]
TA 2 Sub-goal One: Assay narrative effects on our basic neurochemistry. Determine if narratives uniquely modulate human hormone or neurotransmitter production. Determine if the production and uptake of behaviorally important neurotransmitters such as oxytocin or serotonin is influenced by narratives, and in what way. Identify novel neurotransmitters or other biologically active molecules modulated by narrative influence. [. . . .]
TA 2 Sub-goal Two: Understand narrative impact on the neurobiology of memory, learning and identity. [. . . .] Explore the differential influence of stories on neurotransmitter systems as compared to other environmental stimuli. Determine how stories impact the neurobiology of important identity-related judgments, such as whom you consider to be a member of your in-group and whom you count as an out-group member.
TA 2 Sub-goal Three: Assess narrative influence on the neurobiology of emotions. [. . . .] Identify and explore any unique influences narratives have on the neural mechanisms of empathy and sympathy. Determine in neurobiological terms how and why narratives stir emotions such as disgust or outrage.
TA 2 Sub-goal Four: Examine how narratives influence the neurobiology of moral judgment. [. . . .] Determine what aspects of narratives are most likely to cause changes in moral judgments and via what mechanism. Identify the neural mechanism or mechanisms by which narratives affect judgments about moral guilt and innocence, or the moral permissibility and/or impermissibility of certain actions.
TA 2 Sub-goal Five: Determine how narratives modulate other brain mechanisms related to social cognition. [. . . .] Identify and explore how stories influence neural mechanisms responsible for the generation and sustainment of collective action or group behavior. [. . . .]

Technical Area Three: Narrative Models, Simulations and Sensors.

[. . . .] The ultimate goal of Technical Area Three is to enable prevention of negative behavioral outcomes, such as use of indiscriminant violence, and generation of positive behavioral outcomes, such as building trust. This will involve modeling and simulating the influence of narratives on individuals and/or groups to help us predict and quantify how and why our behavior changes as a result of narrative interaction. Proposals to this technical area will address these goals by building sensor systems that detect the appropriate variables contained in these models. [. . . .]
TA 3 Sub-goal One: Revolutionize the state of the art in modeling and simulating influence. [. . . .] Refine and extend models of behavior by including consideration of narrative-driven mental and neurobiological states and the variables which influence them. Develop novel or improved methods for capturing the transition from changes in beliefs, desires and attitudes to actions. Survey and analyze particular modeling methodologies (agent-based, game-theoretic, system dynamics, directed graphs, etc.) to determine how to best extend them to influence-oriented applications. [. . . .]
TA 3 Sub-goal Two: Develop and validate new models or dramatically improve existing influence models by incorporating narrative considerations. [. . . .] Develop a methodology for incorporating narrative-driven neurobiological considerations into improved influence models and determine whether this requires modeling individuals and/or groups. Determine what aspects of narrative neurobiology (such as memory, emotions, judgment, learning, and identity) are most critical for building a new or dramatically enhancing existing influence models. Build such a model capable of either or both individual and population-level narrative influence modeling, and demonstrate that it is twice as effective as existing methods at forecasting influence. Validate and verify the model in at least one potentially iterable testable domain (such as forecasting the success of advertising, movies, public relations campaigns or reception of disaster relief interventions).
TA 3 Sub-goal Three: Develop non-standard and novel sensor suites keyed to the variables and processes identified in new or improved influence models. [. . . .]Identify what environmental variables are most critical for the influence process and develop methods for measuring them. Baseline against current technologies for detecting and measuring indirect indicators of neural activity (such as capillary dilation, galvanic skin response, eye pupil dilation, gaze direction, micro-facial feature analysis, etc.), and against current standoff technologies for more direct detection and measurement (such as sensing neurobiological compounds). [. . . .] Efforts that rely solely on standoff/non-invasive/non-detectable sensors are highly encouraged. The technologies developed in TA 3 Sub-goal Three should be validated independently and then used in the validation and verification of any models developed to satisfy TA 3 Sub-goal Two.
In summary, this research agenda has as its objectives (1) developing a theory of what narrative consists of and what attributes of narratives make them influential, (2) understanding what narratives are doing to brains when they influence cognition, feeling, moral and ethical judgments, and group and individual behavior, and (3) applying the new knowledge to the engineering of technologies of behavioral prediction and control. Here we have an appendage to, if not outright continuation of, the program formerly known as MKULTRA, the intelligence community’s supposedly suspended mind-control research program.

Once the new technologies are developed, they will have to be deployed. How might they be channeled to where they might be put to use? One likely distribution channel is the big screen. Another is the small screen. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and DARPA’s parent, the U.S. Department of Defense, are at the ready to coordinate with corporate mass media the manufacturing of influential narrative product, the CIA through its Entertainment Industry Liaison and the DoD through its Special Assistant for Entertainment Media. In addition, today myth makers have available video gaming and online social media to supplement traditional mass media as distribution channels for engineered historical narrative (aka, propaganda). This whole enterprise might pose limitless opportunities for public-private partnerships.

And they all lived happily ever after.

The Miller Center Report, Vol. 14, No. 3, Winter 1999, is at

William McNeill's article, "The Care and Repair of Public Myth", which appeared in the Fall 1982 issue of Public Affairs is at

DARPA's Broad Agency Announcement, Narrative Networks, is at

A downloadable pdf file of the full solicitation is at

The CIA's Entertainment Industry Liason web page is at

The Pentagon's Special Assistant for Entertianment Media web page is at

Article on Pentagon involvement in video game development is here

The Council on Foreign Relations cheers Pentagon involvement in video game development here

DARPA's Broad Agency Announcement, Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) is at

A downloadable pdf file of the full solicitation is at