How a Narrative Goes Viral

Source: Adrees Latif/Reuters For more than a year under pandemic conditions, it didn’t

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  1. I’m not sure if we should be in the business of making this more complicated, but here goes: sometimes narratives aren’t exactly Narratives! as much as they are subtext floating in the ether that is weaponized in order to combat another existing narrative.

    “Your kid is going to have to wear a mask in school but the people coming across the border are set loose to do whatever they wish”

    “Your kid is going to have to wear a mask in school but President Obama just had a huge maskless party at his $7mm estate on Martha’s Vineyard”


    We are well past the time when the term narrative is sufficient to describe what’s happening. We are into meta levels of narratives, layered on top of subtext, text, irony, and with more than a hint of despair running through it, like a seam of coal in the bedrock of American media culture. Everything is now 4chan c. 2011, indecipherable to the normies because of its in-jokes and trenchancy. In that sort of world any half decent narrative that gives pleasure (in the form of rage towards The Other) is more seductive than anything else you could possibly offer.

  2. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Yeah, I think that’s true in a lot of ways. I characterize what you’re talking about as one of the mechanisms that makes narrative attractive and capable of spread (I simplify it to “scoring points in an argument” but clearly the mechanism is anything that serves up “got eem” energy), so whether it is such a dominant factor in the spread of narratives as described or whether it’s worthy of an entirely new genre or layer is a reasonable thing to debate.

  3. Despair seems worth noticing as I think about how to deal with narrative. If the truth seems unknowable, or too complex, or hidden beneath layers of obfuscation, it can be easier to lose hope of finding it or perhaps just easier to take my awareness down a notch, out of fatigue.

    I’m reminded of Fitzgerald’s quote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

    Writing is perhaps a nice way to accomplish this. If I write down my thoughts about an issue, I can look at multiple truths at once a lot more easily than I can roll them around simultaneously in my mind.

  4. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    This is a big reason why I write! One of the disciplines I’ve gotten into above doing what you describe is to start by explicitly not formulating what I think in context of an argument I might build. Simple statements of things that I think are true, presented without conscious agenda.

  5. One way I look at it sometimes is that narrative is the question, and your position or belief on the matter is the answer. The same question can have different answers for different people.

    Another analogy is that a narrative is a model of the world, necessarily oversimplified to be describable in a paragraph. This model has parameters, and your belief is the set of parameters that you think makes the best fit to reality.

  6. The Delta variant came from flippin India, not from Hispanic migrants. Some COVID come from migrants. Delta is COVID. Migrants have created the surge. Somebody failed Logic 101. Digging into the narrative about vaccines and you will find similar illogic, but facts/logic clearly don’t matter. So the question is why do we still have a very large group that cares so intensely about migration issues that they will subvert all rational discussion to furthering their anti-immigration viewpoint. Convincing the other side they are wrong is a fools game. Are we at a point in this revolutionary cycle that narrative counter-weapons have become the weapons of choice? If so traditional media and the traditional national establishment may be hopelessly outgunned.

  7. Haven’t heard that narrative, but I try to avoid most conventional news sources so perhaps that is why I have missed it?

    On the surface the narrative doesn’t seem logical. Relatively small number of people crossing border illegally in comparison to size of US total population, so the illegals are not likely the root cause of recent COVID spread. Not sympathizing with the illegal border crossers, that number should be zero and it is government job to enforce the border. But that’s a different story.

    I think the more powerful story on COVID is Delta variant is 10X or some such large factor more transmissible than previous variants. This is good news!!!.

    Given that Delta is spreading so quickly, we should be able to measure time in weeks until everyone that is not vaccinated has been exposed to Delta. 99.XX% exposed to Delta will develop natural immunity, and 0.xx% will not and will die.

    And that should be close to the end of the pandemic in the US. The US will be ~60% fully vaccinated, ~10%-15% or so have had one shot, and the rest have developed natural immunity by exposure to the Delta variant. That will be close to 100% protection in US as a combination of vaccinated and those that caught Delta and developed natural immunity. End of pandemic.

    What will make the news cycle when COVID burns itself out in a few months?

  8. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    The memes which underpin things like anti-immigrant sentiment are pretty powerful and very difficult to outgun in narrative space under even the best of circumstances.

  9. On March 3rd, multiple news outlets that the Biden administration’s implementation of catch-and-release policies had resulted in 108 migrants who were in the country illegally testing positive for Covid-19 and then being released.

    If we run 108 people through Ben’s math on his Jan 20 note I think this particular narrative might have some legs.

    On the other hand - we have to account for several other factors , and I agree that pointing to a single cause is both destructive and harmful.

    I watch Fox and CNN with my coffee in the morning just to watch how things are being spun. This morning CNN spent the time I watched blaming the unvaccinated , Fox spent the hour blaming immigration policy.

  10. Fascinating piece. I particularly identify this with: “Even when we feel that our opinions are aligned with the facts of a topic – especially then – it is important to recognize when the features of a rapidly spreading framing of the topic are present.”

    I did that in this specific case and was surprised to find no real difference in the lines (it’s diverted a little recently but not when the narrative started to blow up).

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