What Exactly Is the ‘Weaponized Narrative Initiative’ and Why Should It Scare the Shit Out of Us? (Opinion)

Here’s an in-depth look at Arizona State University’s “Weaponized Narrative Initiative,” which is the brainchild of the Center on the Future of War and the largely Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded “New America” think tank.

“Conventional military dominance is still critical to the superpower status of the United States. But even in a military sense, it is no longer enough: if an American election can be controlled by an adversarial power, then stealth aircraft and special forces are not the answer.” — ASU’s Weaponized Narrative Initiative

“[T]he U.S. is in the unaccustomed position of being seriously behind its adversaries,” Arizona State University’s (ASU) home page for its “Weaponized Narrative Initiative” reads. The project, which is the brainchild of the supposedly non-partisan Center on the Future of War, a partnership between ASU and the independent Washington, D.C., think tank New America, has the overly broad goal of “beginning… an important dialogue for the United States, and for all those countries that believe in the value of rationality, responsibility, and some form of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.'” Which, of course, begs the question: WTF is the Weaponized Narrative Initiative exactly? And how worried should we be about it? (Very.)

Allenby speaking. Image: New America

“Weaponized narrative is the use of information and communication technologies, services, and tools to
create and spread stories intended to subvert and undermine an adversary’s institutions, identity, and
civilization, and it operates by sowing and exacerbating complexity, confusion, and political and social schisms,Braden R. Allenby wrote in a summer 2017 issue of Issues in Science and Technology. Allenby, who’s one of the co-directors of ASU’s Weaponized Narrative Initiative, along with Joel Garreau, added that a weaponized narrative “is an emerging domain of asymmetric warfare that attacks the shared beliefs and values that support an adversary’s culture and resiliency… build[ing] on previous practices, including disinformation, information warfare, psychological operations (psyops), fake news, social media, software bots, propaganda, and other practices and tools… .”

Allenby goes on to discuss how Russia has become expert at propagating weaponized narratives; using them as a part of an “integrated Ukrainian invasion” (again, this was written in 2017) as well as “broad interference in US and European elections in a long-term effort to weaken and divide the West… .” The Professor of Civil, Environmental, and Sustainable Engineering even goes on to note that when “a small group of alt-right protesters led by the white supremacist Richard Spencer gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest a decision to move a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Among the crowd’s chants were, ‘Russia is our friend!” which Allenby says “is actually a measure of the success of the campaign that Russia has waged for several years to develop a favorable narrative among the global alt-right.”

Allenby goes on to further highlight Russia as a master weaponized narrative creator, noting that:

“Weaponized narrative is an ideal asymmetric strategy for adversaries of the United States that find themselves unable to compete in conventional warfare. It enables projection of power without
significant risk of triggering conventional military responses; it favors offense over defense, as many
cyber-based weapons do; it is inexpensive. It is particularly useful for a country such as Russia,
with a weak petro-state economy, to use against the United States and Europe; moreover, because of
Russia’s Marxist and Soviet history, disinformation and information warfare techniques are part of the
state’s experiential DNA, which means it has a strong base in relevant experience on which to build the new capabilities that enable weaponized warfare. Cyberweapons such as bot armies, troll factories, and deceptive sock puppet websites are far cheaper than traditional munitions.
Moreover, success doesn’t require constructing a coherent counter narrative; it’s sufficient to cast doubt on existing narratives and attack existing institutions such as the media or security agencies.”

In his article Allenby concludes, in part, that “the West doesn’t understand weaponized narrative” and “is having a hard time responding” because “it jumps legal and operational domains, especially the Constitutional divide between civilian and military functions, and the equally strong differentiation between the private and public spheres.”

How does ASU’s Weaponized Narrative Initiative expect to combat Russia’s supposed weaponized narrative advantages? It’s not exactly clear. In fact, it’s not exactly clear what ASU’s initiative does at all. Although New America—which uses a black-and-white American flag as its emblem—is extremely well funded from the likes of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, Eric and Wendy Schmidt, the Walton Family Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and even the US Department of State.

As for funding amounts, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, gave somewhere in the neighborhood of $9.8 million in the fourth quarter of 2021 alone. Not to mention the organization has some very big “household names” on its board, including actor Ashton Kutcher, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, and CNN host Fareed Zakaria.

So what does the Washington DC-based New America “think tank”—which apparently drives ASU’s Weaponized Narrative Initiative financially—do then? According to its “Our Story” page, the organization is “dedicated to renewing the promise of America by continuing the quest to realize our nation’s highest ideals, honestly confronting the challenges caused by rapid technological and social change, and seizing the opportunities those changes create.” I.e. it’s unclear what New America does, and its goals, like those of ASU’s Weaponized Narrative Initiative itself, are so broad as to be pointless.

Despite its nebulous mission, however, New America’s ostensible point of view—at the very least—can be inferred from its blog posts and articles. The organization, for example, has posts titled “Reducing Exclusionary Discipline Practices in Early Childhood Education” and “Russia’s Ghost Soldiers and the Crime of Aggression.” The organization—again, at least ostensibly—also covers topics such as LGBTQ issues (“How Anti-LGBTQ Web Filters Stand Between LGBTQ Youth and the Online Resources They Need”) and issues the Black community in the U.S. faces (“The Importance of Including Black Immigrant Narratives in K–12 Education”).

New America, of course, also covers “climate change” topics extensively (“How Miami Can Survive Climate Change”).

How about the Center on the Future of War? Are its goals any clearer than those of ASU’s Weaponized Narrative Initiative or of New America? The answer is “kind of.”

“The Center on the Future of War explores the social, political, economic, and cultural implications of the changing character of war and conflict,” the Center’s homepage on the ASU website reads. “The Center connects ASU faculty with policymakers and national media, organizes collaborative research projects, produces reports and publications, and designs and implements innovative educational programming,” the organization’s description adds.

While that description is broad, however, under the organization’s research tab, more specific objectives can be gleaned. Underneath its “Research” tab, for example, the Center lists: “Drones,” “Regulating Autonomous Military Technologies,” and “Future of Proxy Warfare” along with the “Weaponized Narrative Initiative.”

Underneath each tab is a brief description of what the Center is focusing on with regards to each topic. For the “Drones,” tab, for example, the Center writes:

“Since 2010, ASU and New America have been working together on various aspects of the use of military and civilian drones around the world. This work began with a 2011 conference that led to an edited volume, Drone Wars: Transforming Conflict, Law, and Policy as well as a number of policy presentations, panel discussions and lectures in DC and at ASU. This research includes three widely cited on-line databases on U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan, drone attacks in Yemen as well as the World of Drones project material collecting information on military drone development in over 80 countries around the world. Research on the use of drones to support international development and the rule of law is found in Drones and Aerial Observation.”

Under the “Regulating Autonomous Military Technologies” tab, the Center writes:

“This project seeks to develop creative ways to regulate autonomous weapons that are likely to impact international security and transform war and conflict in ways that we can only now imagine. The premise of the research is that since the development and deployment of these technologies is still at an early stage, there are significant opportunities for open debate, experimentation, as well as the design and implementation of multi-party commitments and innovative regulatory structures. The project offers a set of ideas that can stimulate conversations such that empowered players are convinced of the importance and possibility of meaningful, multi-party action. It moves the debate away from the traditional domain of the laws of war and towards lessons learned from the rich discourse and practice of rapidly expanding global regulatory systems involving commerce, health, the environment, technology, and other areas where there are efforts to produce international order within contexts of complex innovation and significant uncertainty.”

As for current actions the Initiative is taking, it’s hard to say exactly. A search of Twitter turns up little in terms of updates from the organization (a single tweet from 2017 announcing the founding of the organization was discovered, but that’s about it), and it doesn’t seem to have its own account. Nor does there appear to be a Weaponized Narrative Initiative YouTube channel.

Allenby as an individual, conversely, appears to be somewhat active online. At least in regards to appearing in didactic videos on YouTube. In the video immediately below, for example, Allenby converses with a cohort from the Innovation in Global Development PhD Program at ASU. He discusses various topics—in a reasonably dispassionate and non-partisan fashion—including things like artificial intelligence, the Tesla vehicle fleet, and the rapidly burgeoning social credit system in China. On the last topic, Allenby says at the 22:52-minute mark that the system “helps the Chinese party, the governance system, feed down behavior mechanisms that enable social stability… in some ways [becoming] a very effective tool to implement soft authoritarianism.” (Note again Allenby describes this point of view in a non-partisan way and does not seem to make any statements directly in support of the system.)

Co-director Garreau, on the other hand, does not seem to have much of an ongoing presence online. According to his website, the long-time reporter and editor at The Washington Post is now principal of The Garreau Group; a “network of [Garreau’s] best sources committed to understanding who we are, how we got that way, and where we’re headed, worldwide.” Garreau is also a senior fellow at the School of Public Policy at George Mason University, where he says he’s leading two groups; one studying the future of universities and the other “examining which global gateway city regions will be the winners and losers in the year 2020.”

Bergen himself—Co-Director of the Center on the Future of War and the Vice President, Director of Studies and Fellows Programs and the International Security Program at New America and Professor of Practice in the School of Politics and Global Studies at ASU—is quite active on social media as well as on television. Bergen, in fact, is a CNN National Security Analyst who appears frequently on the “news” network. He also wrote a book on Donald Trump, The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and The World, which supposedly showed, according to one review, “how the Trump administration has stubbornly stuck with [a] free-wheeling playbook of slash and burn.”

Indeed, it seems Bergen has a full-blown case of Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS), hyper-focusing on Donald Trump’s supposed failures while treating the rest of Washington with a partisan myopia. In a CNN opinion article titled “The cost of Trump’s chaos just keeps accumulating,” posted May 29, 2022, for example, Bergen wrote that “Trump has the distinction of being the only US president who publicly and consistently refused to accept his electoral loss,” adding that “His lies about the 2020 election have poisoned America’s politics for the foreseeable future, as Trump has made signing on to those lies a de facto litmus test for many Republican candidates running for office.”

Bergen added in the same article that “the bravery of the Ukrainians now fighting the Russians underlines the idiocy of Trump’s embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin and also of his efforts to hold back military aid to the Ukrainians.”

But CNN itself—as well as MSNBC et al.—have largely devoted themselves to focusing on Trump anyway, of course. Which means Bergen’s opinion pieces, etc. are really just more drops in a bucket with no bottom.

If Allenby is ostensibly non-partisan, Garreau is inactive online, and Bergen’s voice is just another fart in the wind, why then should we be so afraid of ASU’s Weaponized Narrative Initiative? For three big reasons. One: New America, which drives the Initiative, receives massive amounts of money from powerful donors. Two: We have no idea what that money is going to fund. And Three: It’s more than clear from Bergen’s books, articles, and television appearances that the Center on the Future of War is anything but non-partisan.

These three points taken together paint a very disturbing picture. While New America proudly presents its funders, it doesn’t offer any insight whatsoever into what that funding is actually going toward. And while Allenby’s didactic Zoom videos on YouTube are interesting enough to watch, it’s hard to imagine they require tens of millions of dollars to produce. Note that the first page of ongoing donations for New America amounts to more than $53 million. Where in the world is all that money going?

It’s easy enough to tell that New America, ASU’s Weaponized Narrative Initiative, and many of the people who run the programs are also not only not non-partisan, but actually hyper-partisan as well. Not only do those in charge like Bergen constantly criticize Trump and the Republican party more so than they do the Democrats and their leaders, but they also make zero mention of the fact that Hillary Clinton’s claims of Trump’s collusion with Russia have been shown to be nothing more than lies spun out of thin air. They also, of course, are apparently completely mum on anything so politically volatile as Hunter Biden’s laptop, which we all know now is laden with potential national security threats generated by the drug- and porn-addicted President’s son.

All of this to say: ASU’s Weaponized Narrative Initiative is, in fact, hyper-partisan, extraordinarily well funded by powerful players on the world stage, and anything but transparent with regards to what it’s actually doing with all of its money. Which means we shouldn’t just be a little worried about the program. We should be scared shitless.

Feature image: Paul Cross

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