Buffalo Bull

Issue E.17 — Monday, 2017.05.01

Controlling the Narrative

An important goal of propaganda is to define and to control the narrative, the story which is used to piece together the facts. For example, consider the demolition of the three World Trade Center (WTC) buildings in New York on 11 September 2001, with the contemporaneous attack on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. There are multiple conflicting and competing narratives for that event. Two of them, in summary, are:

The power of the narrative is illustrated by the unfolding of subsequent events. Just after the WTC went down, the government released a version of the first of these narratives. The government’s version of the story was flawed, however, because it had to be changed a little because it didn’t match the facts as they became public. In some cases, it never matched the facts: the facts were simply ignored. Although there was a limited inquiry for show purposes, many questions were never addressed or answered. (Also, it was amazing how quickly the government was able to produce this explanation, flawed as it was, of some of the events.) After a “normal” crime, the crime scene is cordoned off, and as much time as needed is taken to examine the evidence. With the WTC demolition, the rubble was quickly hauled off, with the steel being sent to China to be recycled into appliances and computers and other manufactured goods. Despite its flaws, this government narrative stuck, and many believed it, and continue to believe it. The first minimally sufficient narrative gets traction, and survives.

The second narrative developed more slowly, and, although it explains more of the facts, because it was fleshed out later, it operated at a severe disadvantage. It has taken much longer for the second narrative to gain subscribers, and the “official” first narrative is usually assumed to be correct, at least in “respectable” circles.

One of the reasons for the success of the first narrative was that, once it was adopted, it acted as a filter for subsequent disclosures and discoveries. We have a tendency to judge candidate “facts” or information, correct or incorrect, with a bias based on what we already believe. This tendency is known as confirmation bias: we prefer to believe evidence which confirms existing beliefs. Thus, if we already believe that foreign terrorists did it, and we are offered a piece of information, we tend to believe the information if it supports our belief in foreign terrorists as a cause, but we tend to disbelieve the information if it contradicts our belief in foreign terrorists as a cause.

You might notice that many subsequent “terrorist” attacks have followed the same successful pattern: shortly after the attack, the government releases in an amazingly short time a narrative which explains the event. Even when there are subsequent revelations which appear to contradict the narrative, people continue to believe it because confirmation bias causes them to reject the contradictory facts.

People will believe impossible things, rather than confront their own gullibility, and they are almost always cowards when it comes to confronting others to disagree with the majority beliefs. They would rather go into full battle, get shot at and have their limbs blown off, than to stand up at a public meeting and tell others that those others are wrong.

The government narrative regarding the WTC might have been created this way: One official says to his team, “We’d better come up with a story for this before an undesirable alternative takes hold”, and they quickly come up with an imperfect but mostly plausible story and stick to it. Or, maybe it was created in advance, and it had to be adjusted after the fact because the execution of the plan didn’t go exactly as expected. You can believe either way, but regardless the initial narrative is of paramount importance.

Narratives can cause their subscribers to ignore contradictory facts. This is especially true when the facts are complex, or the evidence is incomplete. It’s easy to understand the foreign terrorist narrative, but the facts which contradict it involve physics and finance and other kinds of knowledge that most people just don’t possess, and don’t feel comfortable with. It’s easy to blame it on the foreign terrorists in the airplanes, but it’s hard to account for a building collapsing at a free fall rate when you don’t even really know what free fall is, and probably never took high school physics anyway. So narratives can be far more comfortable than facts, especially when you can “stretch” the narrative to account for facts it actually contradicts.

Not all propaganda narratives are found in the realm of politics. They are also used in advertising, by religions, in legal disputes, in commerce, and even in the personal arena.

Science, too, has narratives. Anthropologists once repeated the story that modern man, over millenia, pushed Neanderthal out of the picture, but that there was little contact. Now we know that Neanderthal DNA isn’t uncommon in modern man, which implies more than a little contact.

The right narrative can prove amazingly durable, even in the total absence of evidence. For many years, it was said that new immigrants at Ellis Island were given new “American-style” names upon arrival. Recent research shows that this mass re-naming never happened: the truth was that the immigrants themselves took on newer names as they settled in to their new homeland. And a narrative which seems to have been created in the Second Century CE is still with us, the central narrative of Christianity, although there is no hard evidence that the crucifixion and resurrection even happened. Maybe it happened, maybe not.

Some narratives, it seems, just have to be taken on faith.

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