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Narrative Intelligence vs. Narrative Analysis: What's the Difference?

July 13, 2023Gregg Newby

Clarifying the Problem

Narrative intelligence was born of the need to defend online communities against propaganda and false narratives. When bad actors circulate disinformation, chaos ensues. Gunmen storm pizza parlors in search of child trafficking victims. Teenagers try to join outlawed extremist groups. Ill-informed patients make poor health decisions. Ordinary citizens suddenly storm the Capitol Building.

Indeed, our electoral process is a favorite target of these bad actors, who routinely generate false claims about political parties, individual candidates, and even entire legislative bodies. While they may be trying to influence behavior at the ballot box, they are are far more interested in feeding the bitter divisions now haunting our democracy. Polarization is their ultimate goal, and in recent years they've easily achieved it.

They've also succeeded in seeding a profound distrust in the nation's political system, one that appears to transcend party affiliation. Research has shown that more Americans than ever consider politics a corrupt process that serves only the interest of the nation's wealthiest, at the expense of everyone else. And by some polls, as many as half of us now believe the federal government is concealing the truth about the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. This is all the result of false narratives.

So what is to be done about this profound loss of faith in the democratic process, this deep-seated pessimism that fueled the January 6th storming of the nation's capitol? Is there a viable solution at all?

Clarifying the Solution

Enter narrative intelligence. Narrative intelligence refers to the body of measurable facts we gather when we conduct a rigid, systematic study of online narratives. Narrative intelligence can give us the answers to many of the questions surrounding a piece of disinformation: What is the intent of this narrative? Who likely created it? How rapidly is it spreading? Who's been amplifying it? Which platforms are embracing it? Which aren't?

Narrative intelligence is still a new concept, and not all of its methods have been completely hammered out yet. Nor has its working vocabulary been fully defined.

One concept that's begging for clarification is narrative analysis, a term that's often used interchangeably with narrative intelligence. Narrative intelligence and narrative analysis are not the same thing, though. One is a process while the other is the result of that process. Let's take a closer look at this distinction.

Clarifying Narrative Analysis

First, narrative analysis refers to the scientific measurement of an online narrative. It is largely - but not entirely - quantitative in nature. At EdgeTheory, for instance, we use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) tools to map a narrative's spread across online communities. We also measure the frequency with which specific keywords appear within different versions of the same narrative. We take this additional step because the phrasing of a narrative often changes over time. Users reshape and repurpose it before passing it along.

Narrative analysis also measures where online a given narrative is having the most impact. Different demographic groups use different platforms, after all, allowing us to determine who is being most affected. For example, we can reasonably conclude that a narrative gaining ground on TikTok is targeting Gen Zers and Millenials, while something on facebook is taking aim at the older set, the Gen Xers and Baby Boomers.

These are only some of the factors we consider when we carry out narrative analysis. The process can be lengthy and time-consuming, or it can be relatively short, depending on what exactly we are trying to learn.

Clarifying Narrative Intelligence

Once the measurement is complete, our findings take the form of narrative intelligence. Narrative intelligence is the 'intel' we have gathered through exhaustive study and measurement, i.e. narrative analysis. It is what we have learned about the narrative in question.

Usually, narrative intelligence takes the form of a report, such as a brief or presentation. Depending on the purpose of the study, narrative intelligence can include

  • Where a narrative originated
  • Who is most likely behind it
  • Which platforms are the most 'infected' with it
  • The rate at which it is spreading
  • Who exactly is amplifying it
  • Its apparent objective (political unrest, recruitment, vaccine refusal etc)

Once we have this information, we have our intel. We have narrative intelligence. We can then use it to better understand the approach rogue actors are taking to manipulate online communities. We may even be able to to use this data to counter false narratives with valid truth.

Clearly, then, narrative intelligence is a necessary tool for for battling online disinformation. We wouldn't be able to produce it, however, without the painstaking process we call narrative analysis.

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