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Mounting defenses against the nefarious powers of narrative

ASU expert: Constant spread of misinformation can be corrosive to society.
April 3, 2017

New ASU initiative seeks to help counter the threat of fast-spreading forms of information, disinformation warfare made for digital age

Dramatic leaps in the quantity of information and the speed of its delivery may be spawning some of the most fundamental cultural changes in history spurred by advances in technology, according to Arizona State University Professor Brad Allenby.

Much of what this portends is good, but there are now clear signs that some of what it has wrought is a platform for the launching of “what you could call Propaganda 3.0,” he said.

What Allenby and some of his colleagues are calling it more precisely is “weaponized narrative.”

The full definition of the concept is a work in progress, but it generally describes technologically and psychologically sophisticated efforts to manipulate groups of people, and even nations, socially and politically through the spread of distorted information, or “false narratives.”

"By creating the stories and controlling the narratives over time, it’s being shown that you can significantly turn public opinions and attitudes in different directions,” Allenby said.

By skillful use of social media, the internet and other communications venues with nearly instantaneous global reach, it has become much easier to target members of specific groups with messaging craftily scripted to shape their outlook on the world — think, for instance, of the purveyors of “fake news.”

“What you can do with the help of today’s technologies is essentially isolate like-minded communities and feed them messages, images or ‘news’ tailored to reinforce what those communities are already inclined to believe,” Allenby said.

Battles waged with words and images

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Weaponized Narrative Initiative co-director Brad Allenby says the constant spread of misinformation can be corrosive to society. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

The strategy itself is nothing new, he adds. The difference is that with the lightning quickness and far-reaching saturation of today’s mass media, communities can be set against each other more effectively.

“So what you now have is an erosion of connections between citizens who may have long had different outlooks on public issues but were at least united on some basic ideals and principles,” said Allenby, an ASU President’s Professor of civil, environmental and sustainable engineering in the university’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

He is also a professor of engineering and ethics in ASU’s Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics and author of the recent book “The Rightful Place of Science: Future Conflict and Emerging Technologies.”

Allenby is now teaming with Joel Garreau, professor of law, culture and values in ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and a former long-time award-winning Washington Post journalist, to establish and co-direct the Weaponized Narrative Initiative, which will operate under the umbrella of the Center on the Future of War at ASU in collaboration with New America.

“We are at an inflection point in history. A new battlespace and a new civilization are being born,” Garreau said. “With our two directorates, research and operations, the Weaponized Narrative Initiative is an early attempt to understand what’s going on, and then do something about it.”

Diverse team is taking on the challenge 

The Center on the Future of War focuses on research, education, public policy studies and analysis of the social, political, economic and cultural implications of the changing nature of war and conflict.

New America is a combination think tank, policy research institute, technology laboratory, public forum and media platform, committed to “renewing American politics, prosperity and purpose in the Digital Age.”

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Initiative co-director Joel Garreau says false narratives are part of the new “battlespace” in modern information warfare. Photo courtesy of The Garreau Group

With those partners, Allenby and Garreau hope to work with other researchers to embark on intensive study and analysis of the rise of weaponized narratives.

They also will be aided by a team of faculty from ASU and other universities with expertise in politics and global studies, international security, strategic communication and media technologies, including several who have served with the U.S. Marine Corps and Air Force who have expertise in national security and intelligence operations.

They want to produce white papers, conference presentations and platforms for education and discussion with the aim of finding ways to counter the impacts of narratives constructed to plant seeds of political and social destabilization.

Allenby and Garreau recently outlined their view of the threat and the challenges of defending against it in an article titled “Weapon Narrative is the New Battlespace,” posted on Defense One, a website dedicated to news and analysis of national security issues, as well as ideas from strengthening security.

The new initiative’s mission was further explained at the recent Future of War Conference 2017 in Washington, D.C., at which Allenby gave a presentation to an audience that included U.S. Department of Defense, Central Intelligence Agency and White House officials.

Undermining trust in ‘applied rationality’

One aspect of the security threat is rooted in the unprecedented capabilities of our technological advances.

For all the advantages of “smart” devices and systems embedded in phones, buildings, infrastructure, cars, computer networks, consumer products and more, “many of these things are susceptible to being used as tools of information warfare,” Allenby said.

Engineers, scientists and industry that are expanding the capabilities of such technologies must be more aware of how they can “unintentionally create vulnerabilities” that compromise cybersecurity. But what we are dealing with is “something more than the Russians hacking into information to mess with an American election,” Allenby said.

From a social psychology perspective, we are witnessing the reverberations of people throughout the world being confronted with a much more complex and thus often more confusing and frightening world than in the past.

Frustration and disorientation over the loss of life’s seeming simplicity is opening susceptibility to aggressively manipulative narratives that seek to undermine knowledge and understanding “to such a degree that applied rationality is no longer a trusted way to discern the truth,” Allenby said.

“Now you’re watching a rejection of rationality and the validity of scientific findings as sources of truth in favor of these politicized narratives that reinforce highly partisan viewpoints,” he said.

In a recent article on the website of Fifth Domain, a cybersecurity and defense news outlet, Allenby was quoted about how such trends of rejection and denial of facts gives tech-savvy creators of disinformation openings to influence large populations.

The thrust of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative’s work will be to find ways of breaking through the power of these narratives and reversing our self-destructive societal fragmentation.

Top image courtesy of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative

Joe Kullman

Science writer , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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Stakeholders seek solutions for revenue gap at NCAA symposium

ASU hosts symposium for in-depth look at college sports, timed to Final Four.
April 3, 2017

University presidents, athletic directors and conference commissioners gather at ASU

A prominent leader in higher education said college sports revenue has been flourishing, but a great disparity is on the horizon as conferences align to make lucrative network deals.

“The rich will get richer, and the others will die,” E. Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University, said Monday. “We need to come together rather than engage in hand-to-hand combat.”  

Gee’s comment came at a symposium, “Full Court Press: Media, Autonomy, and the Future of College Sports” on ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus.

The timing of the event, which was hosted by the Sports Law and Business Program at ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, was designed to coincide with the Final Four — the NCAA’s primary revenue generator.

The half-day conference brought together leading university presidents, athletic directors, conference commissioners and sports industry professionals to prompt an in-depth examination of college sports and where the industry could be headed in the years to come.

“By bringing together officials from both in- and outside collegiate athletics, this symposium melds the major forces influencing college sports — media, law and business,” said Glenn M. Wong, executive director of the Sports Law and Business Program.

In addition to Gee, other participants included Gene Smith, athletic director of Ohio State University; Renu Khator, chancellor and president of the University of Houston; Keith Gill, athletic director of the University of Richmond; Larry Scott, commissioner of the Pac-12; Janet Judge, president of Sports Law Associates; Mark Hollis, athletic director of Michigan State; Steve Smith, basketball analyst; Hania Poole, director of NCAA Digital and Turner Sports; Gary R. Roberts, president of Bradley University; and Kenneth Shropshire, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

The panel agreed one of the most critical issues facing college sports is the widening revenue gap between the institutions in the Power 5The five conferences are the Pac-12; Big 12; Big Ten; Southeastern Conference and the Atlantic Coast Conference. conferences, and those in the remainder of the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-A.

Many wondered if those other schools would still be able to compete despite significant disparities.

“Financially, the model is broken and has always been dysfunctional,” Smith said. “Teams and conferences have to stay strong.”

Smith suggested regionalizing the conferences — an approach Division II schools have thrived on for years — to ensure that schools in every region have fair access to championships.

Regionalization would also reduce the amount of time student-athletes spend on the road in competition and allow them to better enjoy the college experience, Khator said.

“This takes a toll on a student-athlete’s time demands,” Khator said. “What comes first — academics or athletics?”

The panel also tackled issues such as diversity in administration, the power of autonomy, Title IX, social justice and the expanding role of digital media.

Poole said the NCAA now has 15 different media and digital platforms, and millennials are driving the way in which we view sports.

“People prefer to watch the game in many different ways as it fits their lifestyle,” Poole said.

Wong said by weaving these perspectives together at one event, participants gained a better understanding of why change is occurring and where the industry may be headed.

“Linking all of these individuals and their ability to make industry-shifting decisions highlights the significance of our symposium,” Wong said.

Participants also took time to praise Phoenix as the host site for the Final Four weekend.

“This Final Four is just a phenomenon,” Smith said, “and it’s been a great run.”

For a detailed look at the symposium's three panels, click here.

Top photo: West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee listens during a panel discussion on the state of collegiate sports at the "Full Court Press: Media, Autonomy, and the Future of College Sports" symposium Monday at the Beus Center for Law and Society in downtown Phoenix. The program featured officials from both the inside and outside of collegiate athletics, and it focused on major influences on college sports: media, law and business. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now