Weaponised narratives divide public, disrupt reasoned discussion

Online propaganda is not just about bots and trolls but about exploiting and manipulating the sense-seeking nature of the humans using the internet.

Credit: Wikicommons

As Australia confronts the China interference issue, local academics have reported a wave of talk about racism and anti-China bias.

This sort of narrative not only divides the community, but makes intelligent discussion about the real-world issue difficult. It raises the question: is this accusation of racism and hostility a weaponised narrative, like those seen elsewhere in the world?

A weaponised narrative is a type of information attack that “undermines an opponent’s civilisation, identity, and will…by generating confusion, complexity, and political and social schisms [which] confounds response on the part of the defender,” according to the Weaponised Narrative Institute.

In this case, the constant talk of a supposed Australian hostility to China or Chinese people echoes talking points from sources linked to the Chinese Communist Party. While it may just reflect the views of the authoritarian party, information used in this way can be ginned up to damage a targeted nation.

Unlike simple “soft power” that all nations, including Australia, seek to build in order to influence other nations,  weaponised narrative is a form of coercive power, where ideas, fears, perceptions can be directed at a nation, or even a community within a nation.

While weaponised narratives have arguably existed as long as conflict has, the internet has created new possibilities to amplify and target the message. These narratives online have become all-too-common in recent years.

When high school students in the US rose in rebellion about lax gun laws, they were smeared as “crisis actors” by pro-gun advocates in the US. Even if the claim was not true, it sowed doubt in the public’s mind, shifting the story for long enough to slow its momentum in national affairs.

Likewise, after Britain blamed Russia for the nerve agent poisoning of ex-Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, a wave of narratives were unleashed that placed the blame back on Britain, in an effort to confuse the public and fracture the British public’s will to confront Russia.

As the internet matures, the ways of exploiting it to disseminate propaganda do, as well.

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