Darpa Wants to Master the Science of Propaganda

Mark Twain once tried to distinguish between the storyteller’s art and tales that a machine could generate. He observed that stringing “incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities,” was the province of the American storyteller. A machine might imitate simple formulas behind yarns, but never quite master them.

The Pentagon’s freewheeling research arm is hoping to prove Twain wrong. Darpa is asking scientists to “take narratives and make them quantitatively analyzable in a rigorous, transparent and repeatable fashion.” The idea is to detect terrorists who have been indoctrinated by propaganda. Then, the Pentagon can respond with some messages of its own.

The program is called “Narrative Networks.” By understanding how stories have shaped your mind, the Pentagon hopes to sniff out who has fallen prey to dangerous ideas, a neuroscience researcher involved in the project tells Danger Room. With this knowledge, the military can also target groups vulnerable to terrorists’ recruiting tactics with its own counter-messaging.

“Stories are important in security contexts,” Darpa said in an Oct. 7 solicitation for research proposals. Stories “change the course of insurgencies, frame negotiations, play a role in political radicalization, influence the methods and goals of violent social movements.” The desire to study narratives has been simmering for a while in the Defense Department. A Darpa workshop in April to discuss the “neurobiology of narratives” added momentum to this project.

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