None of her story, it was later revealed, was true.
But the ability of Hanna’s narrative to evoke emotion and sympathy and its rapid spread to an international audience proved an enduring truth: stories, ranging from urban myths to epic works of literature, exert a powerful influence over people and their beliefs.
And in the era of social media, stories can spread with unprecedented speed to anywhere in the world, potentially influencing elections, protest movements or even revolutions.
Now, the Pentagon wants to use those stories to help it control violence and influence people’s behavior. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency this week announced a new program called “narrative networks,” and one of its goals 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 research effort is yet another foray into the Pentagon’s interest in understanding—and controlling—social networks, which may determine, for example, who will join a terrorist network. In this case, however, DARPA is looking at how narratives spread through social network, via social media, traditional media, and even word-of-mouth.
For those not used to looking at storytelling as a science, the announcement describing the program includes some amusing military-inspired neologisms, such as the desire to create “narrative influence sensors,” that will allow the military to double “the “status quo capacity to forecast narrative influence.”
At its heart, however, this is about doing something governments and social movements have tried to for years: creating stories and narratives that influence people to do, or not do, specific things.
What the Pentagon is now doing is elevating it to a science that can be used in warfare.
The project will include using fMRI scans to study the effects of stories on the brain, looking at emotional responses to stories, such as empathy and disgust. The agency would even use invisible “standoff” sensors, like those that can detect eye pupil dilation, so that they can measure people’s reaction as they listen to a story.
As for how this science will eventually be used to construct military-relevant narratives is unclear. DARPA, as the agency likes to emphasize, is only involved in developing the research and technology. Where it goes from there is up to the Pentagon.