This essay explores how political disinformation campaigns can gain credibility and force by embedding themselves within “master narratives” of national decline and rebirth. As a case study, it examines the Russian-sponsored propaganda that seeks to discredit the humanitarian work of the White Helmets, a volunteer rescue group in Syria. The paper concludes with reflections on the importance of fighting disinformation campaigns on their own turf, not only by refuting falsehoods with facts, but also by opposing the propagandists’ master narratives with coherent and compelling counter-narratives that can motivate constructive collective action.
In our current era of “truth decay,”1 it is increasingly difficult to disentangle fact from fiction. Governments and extremist movements around the world engage in brazen propaganda campaigns.2 Meanwhile, the rapid advance of artificial intelligence and other computational technologies has brought us to the cusp of a new world of “DeepFakes”—digital manipulation technology for creating audio and video recordings that are virtually indistinguishable from reality.3
As Scott Edwards and Steven Livingston point out, although forensic experts “have developed methods for assessing the truthfulness of digital evidence...disinformation peddlers know these methods too—thus inviting a methodological arms race.”4 Whether or not forensic methods can authoritatively distinguish real digital images from fake ones, the proliferation of DeepFakes may “erode the trust necessary for democracy to function effectively,” both because “the marketplace of ideas will be injected with a particularly dangerous form of falsehood” and because “the public may become more willing to disbelieve true but uncomfortable facts.”5
This paper examines how the effective use of “master narratives” can contribute to making falsehoods more credible than facts. A master narrative has been defined as the story that “generates all the other stories,”6 endowing factual claims with meaning and emotional significance by embedding them within a larger coherent narrative structure. This idea is related to the sociological concept of “framing,”7 as well as to the psychological concept of “cognitive schemata”— mental maps that individuals utilize to categorize and interpret information.8 In international relations theory, the concept of the master narrative finds a parallel in the term “strategic narrative,” which Lawrence Freedman defines as a “compelling story” that “can explain events convincingly and from which inferences can be drawn.”9
By focusing on the narrative structures within which factual claims are propagated, we emphasize the need to move beyond the premise that debunking propaganda is principally a forensic enterprise. Bald-faced lies can exercise a magnetic appeal even in the absence of persuasive counterfeit evidence. In an analysis of 126,000 news stories distributed on Twitter between 2006 and 2017, MIT researchers found that “falsehoods [as categorized by independent fact-checking organizations] were 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than the truth.” Whereas true news stories “rarely diffused to more than 1,000 people, the top 1 percent of false-news cascades routinely diffused to between 1,000 and 100,000 people...False political news traveled deeper and more broadly, reached more people, and was more viral than any other category of false information.”10
In seeking to explain this phenomenon, the authors of the study asserted that “false news was more novel than true news,” and that “people were more likely to share novel information.”11 But perhaps a more compelling explanation is provided by the late-night comic Stephen Colbert, who coined the term “truthiness” in 2005—a year before the advent of Twitter—to designate information that feels true, regardless of its factual accuracy. “I doubt that many people in American politics are acting on the facts,” said Colbert in an interview with the New York Times. “Everybody on both sides is acting on the things that move them emotionally the most.”12
This essay addresses two questions that are central to understanding and combating the corrosive effects of disinformation campaigns on contemporary politics: first, why do falsehoods often feel more true than facts? Second, how can those who seek to counteract malicious propaganda benefit by understanding the significance of master narratives in the construction of meaning? We begin with a discussion of the nature of master narratives and their role in structuring political debates, and then examine the case study of the Russian disinformation campaign concerning the White Helmets, a Syrian volunteer humanitarian organization that rescues victims of military attacks by Russian and Syrian government forces. As we will see, the controversy surrounding the White Helmets offers a particularly salient example of the “contentious narratives” discussed in this special issue of the Journal of International Affairs. Because the White Helmets publicize video and documentary evidence of war crimes committed by Russian and Syrian forces, their stories about the conflict in Syria have undermined the Russian government’s narrative depicting itself as a champion of global stability and international law. Russian-affiliated propagandists have responded with a furious counterattack, denouncing the White Helmets as a terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaeda that has sought to besmirch Russia’s good name by forging evidence of attacks against Syrian civilians. The essay concludes with reflections on the importance of fighting disinformation campaigns on their own turf—not only by refuting falsehoods with facts, but also by opposing the propagandists’ master narratives themselves with coherent and compelling counter-narratives that can motivate constructive collective action.
Master Narratives and the Construction of Meaning
The concept of the master narrative originated in postmodern literary criticism and in the work of Joseph Campbell, who introduced the notion of a unifying “monomyth” that undergirds all of the world’s great literary and religious traditions.13,14 In Campbell’s account of the monomyth, a “hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder,” and after winning a “decisive victory,” returns from this “mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”15 As Robert Fulford observes, master narratives “build the large narrative contexts that give meaning to specific events—and thus show readers how our own societies fit into history.”16 Moreover, a master narrative that we find convincing and persuasive differs from other stories in an important way: it swallows us. It is not a play we can see performed, or a painting we can view, or a city we can visit. A master narrative is a dwelling place. We are intended to live in it.17
According to the moral philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre, narratives play a critical function in defining communities’ identities and their relationship to the world: “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question, ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’ Children grow into adults by learning stories, and so do nations and communities.”18
Traditionally, U.S. political leaders have relied on two master narratives to articulate America’s national mission and make claims about its unique moral standing: the American Revolution and the second World War. Each of these narratives may be seen as a variant on Campbell’s monomyth, with the American people as the flawed but noble protagonist bestowing the gift of liberty on a grateful world.
In the master narrative of the American Revolution, a hardy band of religious dissenters crossed the ocean and braved dangers to build a shining “City on a Hill” in the wilderness, but the jealous Empire sought to stamp out their freedom through oppressive decrees and military occupation. After the trials of a patriotic war, the American people won their independence and proclaimed that all men— not just British citizens—are created equal. Of course, their triumph was imperfect, because their new constitution permited the blight of slavery to persist. This failure set the stage for the next chapter in the struggle for human emancipation: the American Civil War.
In the narrative of World War II, the American people, disillusioned by their failure to “make the world safe for democracy” after the first World War, had retreated into isolationism like Achilles to his tent. Provoked to action by the rise of Nazi tyranny and the perfidious Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, America joined the fight to vanquish despotic regimes in Europe and Asia. This time, having learned its lesson, America remained engaged in global affairs after its victory, promoting peace and prosperity through the establishment of the United Nations, the Bretton Woods financial institutions, NATO, and the Marshall Plan. Thus equipped, America and its friends gird for the “long twilight struggle” against their erstwhile ally, “Uncle Joe” Stalin.
In Fulford’s words, “A master narrative always speaks with the confidence of an unalterable and unassailable truth—and yet paradoxically, it is always in the process of being altered.”19 Likewise, master narratives are always subject to contestation by competing narratives. For example, the American colonists can be portrayed not as freedom-loving rebels but as drivers of slaves and perpetrators of genocide against native peoples. The American victors of World War II may be seen not as the defenders of liberty but as the storm troopers of the new global imperium, seeking to advance their interests through military domination and the promotion of rapacious capitalism. As we will see in the next section, it is precisely this counter-narrative that Russian propagandists exploit in attempting to discredit the humanitarian work of Syria’s White Helmets.
Case Study: White Helmets, Black Hearts?
For most of his 19 years as president or prime minister of Russia, Vladimir Putin has enjoyed extraordinarily high approval ratings among the Russian people—often greater than 80 percent—even though roughly half of Russians in recent polls say that their country is “moving in the wrong direction.”20 In part, his popularity may be ascribed to the closing of political space in Russia, including through state control over the media, election fraud, the imprisonment or assassination of political rivals, and what the historian Timothy Snyder calls “terror management,” the exploitation of real and fake terrorist attacks for political advantage.21 But Putin has also deftly articulated a master narrative about Russia’s return to greatness under his leadership, one that has resonated with many of his constituents. Like many of the most effective political master narratives, this story is rooted in a mythic history of national decline and rebirth.22
For Putin, the collapse of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical catastrophe of the highest order, but the Russian Federation has now recovered its status as a major European power based on its commitment to the values of “freedom, human rights, justice, and democracy.”23 As Alister Miskimmon and Ben O’Loughlin observe, “on the surface, Russian and Western narratives converge in highlighting the importance of international law, democracy, and the centrality of markets.” This parallel terminology, however, “masks significant differences resting on a contested understanding of core concepts of sovereignty and hierarchy in the international system.”24 The Russian narrative calls for a polycentric world order that, in the words of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, must be founded on “firm foundations of equality, mutual respect, and consideration of each other’s interests.”25
Putin depicts Western denunciations of Russian human-rights violations as self-serving and hypocritical attempts to expand U.S. hegemony at the expense of Russian dignity and global stability.26 In a 2014 speech justifying the annexation of Crimea, he declared:
After the dissolution of bipolarity on the planet, we no longer have stability... Our western partners, led by the US, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun...They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle “If you are not with us, you are against us.” To make this aggression look legitimate, they force the necessary resolutions from international organizations, and if for some reason this does not work, they simply ignore the UN Security Council and the UN overall.27
Given the centrality of claims about Russia’s role in upholding global stability and respect for international law in Putin’s master narrative, it is easy to see why the evidence provided by the White Helmets concerning Russian war crimes in Syria has provoked such a furious reaction from the Kremlin. The Syrian Civil Defense, or White Helmets, is an organization of 3,400 volunteers who rescue victims from the rubble of bombings and other attacks in Syria. According to its website, the organization’s rescue workers have saved more than 114,431 people as of July 2018, while 204 of its volunteers have been killed during their rescue operations—a mortality rate of 6 percent.28 Although the organization professes to be politically neutral, saving “people on all sides of the conflict,”29 they wear GoPro video cameras on their helmets to document their rescues and provide evidence of government attacks.30
Video footage from the White Helmets has enabled international human rights organizations to corroborate witness testimony concerning attacks in Syria, including the April 2017 chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun that killed at least 83 people, and to determine whether these attacks targeted civilians or military forces.31 During the Russian and Syrian government bombing campaign against Aleppo in Autumn 2016, the White Helmets compiled a record of 823 reported incidents, including the use of barrel bombs and cluster munitions, the use of which Russian authorities have strenuously denied.32 From the outset of Russia’s military intervention in Syria in September 2015, Russian officials and state media outlets falsely insisted that ISIS was their only military target and denied attacking civilian sites.33
Efforts to discredit the White Helmets have taken a multi-pronged approach, ranging from denouncing them as an “infiltration agent for the U.S. coalition inside Syria”34 to decrying them as terrorists. Lavrov has accused the White Helmets of systematically faking evidence of attacks, and in November 2016 the Russian Defense Ministry Spokesman declared: “The so-called reports about ‘hospitals’ and ‘schools’ allegedly located in terrorist-held Syrian territory were created by the ‘White Helmets’ group financed by London.”35 One propaganda outlet connected to Russian state media inserted a false caption into a White Helmets promotional video reading “One for all and all for NATO.”36
As for the claims concerning the White Helmets’ associations with terrorism, sometimes these are indirect—as in the argument by the German politician Albrecht Müller that the organization is “mainly located in areas controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra.”37 In other cases, the claims are more blatant. One Sputnik columnist called the White Helmets “propaganda conduits for al-Qaeda terror groups,” and Syrian and Russian officials and media have accused them of working with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and by extension, al-Qaeda.38 Fared Shehabi, a loyalist member of parliament in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, regularly attacked the group on Twitter, conflating them with Islamist extremists and linking them to atrocities, including beheadings.39
Russian propaganda concerning the White Helmets uses what the Atlantic Council calls “a 4D approach: Dismiss the critic, distort the facts, distract from the key point, and dismay the audience.”40 By “gaming the social media algorithms with a flood of content, boosted by bots, sock puppet accounts and a network of agitators,” writes Olivia Solon, the Russian strategy has successfully shaped the online conversation about the White Helmets and given “legitimacy to fringe views.”41 As a University of Washington study observes, “This information space can be intensely disorienting...Despite, or because of, deep engagement with this content, our researchers are often left in a state of confusion about what and whom to believe.”42
The fact that even experts can find themselves disoriented and confused by Russian-sponsored disinformation about the White Helmets highlights the power of master narratives to influence both emotion and cognition. In the 1930s, Nazi propagandists hammered away at the claim that German Jews, American financiers, and Soviet Bolsheviks were secretly collaborating to destroy the German nation. Though both factually false and logically absurd, these claims made sense within the context of a master narrative emphasizing Germany’s victimhood in the aftermath of its defeat in World War I. Indeed, the American provocateur Alex Jones has recently shopped a conspiracy theory about Syria with resonances to Nazi propaganda: he suggested not only that the White Helmets had perpetrated the 2017 sarin gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun, but that they were linked to the liberal billionaire George Soros, depicted in far-right circles as a “nefarious Jewish puppet master trying to sell out the average American.”43
To combat the master narratives of disinformation campaigns, Americans need to begin by acknowledging the shortcomings of their own narratives and the flaws of their own policies. Putin’s critique of U.S. unilateralism in his 2014 speech on Crimea, however self-serving, was not without merit. The Iraq Body Count project estimates that, as of 1 July 2018, between 181,731 and 203,903 “documented civilian deaths from violence” have occurred in Iraq since the 2003 invasion led by the U.S. in its “preventive war” against Saddam Hussein’s regime.44 Even at the level of rhetoric, U.S. political leaders’ commitment to protecting endangered civilians and upholding human rights has often been half-hearted and inconsistent. For example, between 2011 and 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama made only a handful of brief public statements criticizing atrocities committed by the Assad regime that have killed hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians, apart from warning Assad against using chemical weapons in 2012 and denouncing him for doing so the following year.45
Stories are not just words; they are the ground of our lived experience. When Vladimir Putin laments the lost greatness of the Soviet Union, he is idealizing a regime that murdered or imprisoned countless millions of its own citizens. When propagandists sponsored by the Russian government accuse the White Helmets of forging a video or associating with terrorists, they are seeking to hide the bigger story: that, since September 2015, the Russian Air Force has systematically bombed civilian targets in Syria in an effort to destroy any hope of a peaceful democratic transition. The resulting carnage has produced a corollary effect that has also advanced Russian foreign policy objectives: namely, to accelerate refugee flows from Syria into Europe, thus destabilizing democratic regimes in Central and Western Europe and undermining the cohesion of NATO and the European Union, not least through the passage of the Brexit referendum in June 2016.
In academic debates among international relations theorists, “realists” often dismiss “idealists” as insufficiently hard-headed. In the case of the Syrian catastrophe, however, the failure of the US and its European allies to stand up for Western ideals has had real and devastating effects on the West’s collective security. It is easy to be cynical about grand narratives depicting America as the torch- bearer of freedom and human rights in a troubled world. Indeed, the “America First” rhetoric of the current U.S. administration reflects the exhausted wish to retreat from an activist role in global affairs. But the power of the United States has always rested at least as much in its ideals as in its armaments. As we work to reinvigorate our alliances and counteract the corrosive effects of anti-democratic propaganda campaigns, the imperatives of sound policymaking and effective storytelling intersect.
Matthew Levinger is Research Professor of International Affairs at the George Washington University. He directs the National Security Studies Program as well as the Master of International Policy and Practice Program at GW’s Elliott School of International Affairs. Previously, Levinger was Founding Director of the Academy for Genocide Prevention at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. At the Holocaust Museum, he played a key role in launching “Crisis in Darfur,” a joint initiative of the Museum and Google Earth, as well as the Genocide Prevention Task Force, co-chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen. Levinger’s research and teaching have focused on conflict analysis and prevention, as well as the history of nationalism, revolutionary politics, and genocide. His handbook Conflict Analysis: Understanding Causes, Unlocking Solutions was published by the U.S. Institute of Peace Press in 2013. He is also the author of Enlightened Nationalism: The Transformation of Prussian Political Culture, 1806-1848 (Oxford, 2000) and coauthor of The Revolutionary Era, 1789-1850 (Norton, 2002). He received his B.A. from Haverford College and his Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago.
1 Robert Chesney and Danielle Citron, “Deep Fakes: A Looming Crisis for National Security, Democracy and Privacy?” 21 February 2018; https://www.lawfareblog.com/deep-fakes-looming-crisis- national-security-democracy-and-privacy.
2 Samantha Bradshaw and Philip N. Howard, Troops, Trolls and Troublemakers: A Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation (Oxford: Computational Propaganda Research Project, Oxford Internet Institute, 2017).
4 Scott Edwards and Steven Livingston, “Fake News is About to Get a Lot Worse. That Will Make it Easier to Violate Human Rights — and Get Away With It,” Washington Post, 3 April 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/04/03/fake-news-is-about-to-get-a-lot-worse- that-will-make-it-easier-to-violate-human-rights-and-get-away-with-it/?utm_term=.e3ffcdd7dee6.
7 The sociologist Ervin Goffman has defined a “frame” as an interpretive schema for organizing and making meaning out of otherwise chaotic social experience. He notes that a frame “allows its user to locate, perceive, identify, and label a seemingly infinite number of concrete occurrences defined in its terms.” Ervin Goffman, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 21. See also Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, “The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice,” Science 211, no. 4481 (1981), 453-58; Daniel Kahneman, “Maps of Bounded Rationality: Psychology for Behavioral Economics,” The American Economic Review 93, no. 5 (2003), 1449-75; George P. Lakoff, Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing), 2004.
8 See for example Matti Kamppinen, ed., Consciousness, Cognitive Schemata, and Relativism: Multidisciplinary Explorations in Cognitive Science, Studies in Cognitive Systems 15 (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1993); Paul DiMaggio, “Culture and Cognition,” Annual Review of Sociology 23 (1997), 263-87.
9 Lawrence Freedman, The Transformation of Strategic Affairs, The International Institute for Strategic Studies, Adelphi Paper 379 (London: Routledge, 2006), 22. See also Ronald R. Krebs, Narrative and the Making of U.S. National Security, Cambridge Studies in International Relations 138, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Alister Miskimmon, Ben O’Loughlin, and Laura Roselle, eds., Forging the World: Strategic Narratives and International Relations (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2017).
12 Ben Zimmer, “Truthiness,” The New York Times, 13 October 2010, https://www.nytimes. com/2010/10/17/magazine/17FOB-onlanguage-t.html; Stephen Colbert, “The Word—Truthiness,” 17 October 2005, http://www.cc.com/video-clips/63ite2/the-colbert-report-the-word---truthiness.
13 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, Theory and History of Literature 10 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1983), 8-41.
20 “Super Putin: Do Russians Really Love their President?” Newsweek, 7 February 2018 http:// www.newsweek.com/2018/02/16/russians-love-putin-800256.html; “How to Understand Putin’s Jaw- Droppingly High Approval Ratings,” The Washington Post, 6 March 2016, https://www.washingtonpost. com/world/europe/how-to-understand-putins-jaw-droppingly-high-approval-ratings/2016/03/05/17f5d 8f2-d5ba-11e5-a65b-587e721f b231_stor y.html?utm_term=.ae726864a57f.
24 Alister Miskimmon and Ben O’Loughlin, “Russia’s Narratives of Global Order: Great Power Legacies in a Polycentric World,” Politics and Governance 5, no. 3 (2017), 114, https://www.cogitatio- press.com/politicsandgovernance/article/view/1017/1017.
26 Laura Roselle, “Strategic Narratives and Alliances: The Cases of Intervention in Libya (2011) and Economic Sanctions Against Russia (2014),” Politics and Governance 5, no. 3 (2017), 107, https://www.cogitatiopress.com/politicsandgovernance/article/view/1023/1023; Matthew Levinger, “Forging Consensus for Atrocity Prevention: Assessing the Record of the OSCE,” Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal 11, no. 3 (2018), 64-67, 70-71, http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/cgi/ viewcontent.cgi?article=1505&context=gsp.
30 Olivia Solon, “How Syria’s White Helmets Became Victims of an Online Propaganda Machine,” The Guardian, 18 December 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/18/syria-white-hel-mets-conspiracy-theories; Maksymilian Czuperski et al., Breaking Aleppo (Washington, DC: Atlantic Council, 2017), 56.
41 Solon (2017); see also Kate Starbird et al., “Ecosystem or Echo-System? Exploring Content Sharing Across Alternative Media Domains” (Stanford, CA: 12th International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media, 2018), 365-74.
45 Matthew Levinger, “A Core National Security Interest: Framing Atrocities Prevention,” Politics and Governance 3, no. 4 (2015), 35-37, https://www.cogitatiopress.com/politicsandgovernance/article/ viewFile/322/322.