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Making Sense of Nonsense: Narrative Intelligence and Conspiracy Theories

July 28, 2023Gregg Newby
Narrative intelligence offers us a means of addressing malign conspiracy theories.

Narrative intelligence has shown us that the Internet is weighted down with false narratives. Intended to strip apart the nation's social fabric and drive us towards tribalism, these narratives appear on a near-daily basis now. Researchers may refer to them as disinformation campaigns or malign narratives, but in common usage they go by a different name. They're called conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy Theories: Past vs. Present

Conspiracy theories have been around since the dawn of recorded history. They seem to be part and parcel of the human experience, a means of explaining the inexplicable. In ancient Rome, for instance, talk abounded that the Emporer Nero had faked his own death. In the mid-14th Century, Jews were widely believed responsible for creating and spreading the black death. And in 16th-Century Britain, plenty of people were pretty sure that Queen Elizabeth I was actually a man.

The mindset that gives rise to such fabrications is still with us today. Spend any amount of time online and you'll soon see that conspiracy theories are everywhere. In the not-too-distant past, they arose and spread organically as people sought to explain anomalies in major historic events, such as the Apollo moon landing or the death of JFK. Armchair speculation led researchers to conclude a sinister hand was at work in these events. Primarily acting out of alarm, they shared their pet theories with others in their circle. Gossip did the rest.

Today, however, the scenario is completely different. True, there are still crackpot researchers out there who are bent on uncovering some grand deception. However, most conspiracy theories are now produced by trolls and manipulators who are fully aware they are making false claims. In the days of yore, at least, the people who fostered conspiracy theories actually believed them. No so, anymore.

Another difference was that old fashioned conspiracy theorists were actually concerned with exposing the truth, at least the truth as they saw it. In their minds, they were working to preserve democracy by keeping government open and transparent. They envisioned themselves as whistleblowers on a crusade, calling attention to some egregious abuse in order to rectify it. Today's conspiracy theories, on the other hand, arise out of the desire to destroy the body politic, not preserve it. The troll farms that churn out the daily streams of false propaganda are deliberately trying to create rancor and division where civil discourse once ruled.

Finally, old-style conspiracy theories didn't have the same real world consequences that online theories today have. Plenty of people may have suspected the government of carrying out one foul deed or another, but nobody acted on those suspicions. That, too, has changed. In the past few years, we've seen a handful of dramatic episodes resulting from online manipulation. The storming of the Capitol Building in early 2021, for instance, came about because of a conspiracy theory. So, too, did the widespread rejection of COVID vaccines after various social media sites carried claims that they were loaded with dangerous toxins.

New Narratives, Heightened Consequences

Clearly, the stakes are much higher now, with new conspiracy theories producing increasingly detrimental outcomes. The nation's enemies scored a direct hit on January 6, for example, when hordes of disaffected voters stormed the nation's capitol with the intent of overturning the election by force. The very seat of government came under assault as disinformed dissidents lay siege to Democracy.

The stakes may be higher now, but so too is our readiness level. Thanks to the tool we call narrative intelligence, we can now identify false narratives and clip their wings when they first appear, before they have time to develop into full-blown conspiracy theories.

Narrative Intelligence to the Rescue

It's important to recognize that conspiracy theories are so prevalent precisely because we live in a society where individual rights prevail. Under a dictatorship, the government could simply scrape the web of anything it finds objectionable, sending those who share it off to prison - or worse. It could also replace objectionable content with its own false propaganda. Neither of those are going to happen here, though, so long as the basic trust between citizen and representative endures.

But that doesn't mean no action can be taken at all. In a free society, battling untrue narratives generally falls outside the role of government, given that any kind of official messaging is generally perceived as propaganda. That job is best left to other groups. The media comes to mind, for instance, as do researchers and educators, all of whom can verify or disprove a given statement far better than any official agency can. It's also the responsibility of each individual to research and determine the truth on their own.

For those who would battle online conspiracy theories, narrative intelligence is a must-have implement. By learning as much as we can about a false narrative - its point of origin, its target audience, and so forth - we can better ensure our public discourse retains its civil and honest character. We can finally make sense of nonsense, enabling us to continue working towards the fair and impartial governance we all deserve.

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