Narrative intelligence is premised on a simple maxim: There's the story and then there's the story of the story.
By 'story,' we mean any narrative you might encounter online. By 'story of the story,' we mean the metadata of that narrative. We mean narrative intelligence.
In case you haven't been convinced yet, online narratives have offline consequences. They drive behavior, after all. People have little choice but to act on the information they have. But when the information turns out to be disinformation, anything can happen. We can be tricked into jeopardizing our health, voting against our own interests, or damaging ourselves in other ways. Some people have even tried to join terrorist cells because of something they saw online.
Narrative intelligence gives us a way to avoid such disastrous outcomes. Built on a framework of critical thinking, narrative intelligence offers a more complete view of online chatter, allowing us to better understand the origin and impact of a given narrative. When properly configured, it can offer insight into a variety of factors associated with an online post, meme, video, article, thread, or even photograph, We call these factors the Five W's.
The WHAT of narrative intelligence addresses the basic meaning of a narrative. What is being said here? it asks.
This is a more complex question than it may seem. Online narratives often carry multiple messages within a single statement. For example, claims about a vaccine being poisonous are more than just warnings to avoid a single jab. They also implicitly accuse the federal government of being deceptive, of colluding with "big pharma" against the interests of ordinary citizens.
Identifying the WHAT of narrative intelligence, then, involves more than merely taking a claim at face value. To truly ferret out embedded meanings, it may be necessary to ask additional questions
When we pause to ask questions like these, we come to a better understanding of how the narrative operates and why users are amplifying it.
Narrative intelligence also concerns itself with the origins and spread of a narrative. This is its WHO factor.
First, analysts will try to determine the genesis of a narrative, asking themselves "who created this?" Answering that question isn't always feasible, but much of value can be learned simply by attempting it.
The second WHO factor is that of engagement. Who is liking and sharing this narrative? Who is commenting? Is it a particular demographic, such as an age group or an economic cluster? Are there other characteristics this group has in common?
Finally, WHO also refers to the intended audience. Who was this narrative originally intended to reach? This segment of users is sometimes different from those who are actually engaging a narrative. Intended for one audience, a narrative sometimes ends up reaching another. For that reason, narrative intelligence concerns itself with intent as well as impact.
The WHERE can speak to the geographic origin of a narrative. If we can't determine who exactly created it, we can still sometimes determine where it began. That in itself can often be enlightening. A false narrative about election fraud, for instance, has much less credibility when it comes from outside the U.S.
WHERE also refers to the various platforms used to spread a narrative. Where online is a given claim being shared or amplified? Social media? Discussion forums? Gaming portals?
Answering these questions can unearth a great deal of information about a given narrative. Something being spread across TikTok, for instance, is clearly targeting a younger demographic than something passed along via email chain.
In compiling narrative intelligence, analysts will sometimes develop a timeline that tracks the appearance and spread of a narrative. The purpose of this timeline is to answer the questions associated with WHEN.
By constructing a timeline of events, we can determine a great deal about a narrative's online proliferation, not to mention the socio-political environment in which it is thriving. Timing is everything, as they say, and public narratives are no exception.
WHY is the ultimate question. It speaks to purpose and intent, the reason the narrative exists in the first place.
Every narrative is designed to provoke a specific response in those who encounter it. Defining this intended response gives us the WHY of narrative intelligence. And when we know WHY a narrative has been created, we can begin to understand the impact it might have.
The other WHY addresses the issue of amplification. WHY are people sharing this particular narrative?
Online users who share false narratives usually don't have the same nefarious motives as those who create them. They often have other reason than simply wanting to be disruptive.
Whatever the case, understanding the mindset of those who amplify bad narratives is essential. If nothing else, it can tell us why a particular piece of disinformation is gaining ground.
Make no mistake. Compiling narrative analysis can be difficult and time-consuming. There is simply too much disinformation being produced for one person - or even a single team - to process it all. Thankfully, we have new AI and machine learning tools to assist in this effort. These technologies are still relatively new, but as they improve so will our ability to unmask bad narratives.
It's unfortunate that disinformation is now a permanent aspect of online interactions, that malicious actors have weaponized it to sew panic and create discord. But now there's a tool to help us find our way of the morass. That tool is narrative intelligence.