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).

  11. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    I had not seen this data. Thanks for sharing it!

  12. Fascinating as (almost) always. Nobody gets a 10.0. Ever. That being said is it narrative and missionaries of all types are increasing because the attention span of people now resembles gnats. That TWTR, Tic-Toc and other dopamine induced beeps of everything allow the a web of relatively small groups of relatively high ranked “influencers” repeating a short story line make it percolate through all media, fiat news and so forth. Also when did “I mean” become the start of the answer of every person interviewed on media?

  13. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    I feel like “I mean” as an introductory interjection is a British import. I remember hearing it a lot in my youth watching Monty Python sketches, but it is possible I am misremembering.

  14. This is my hope Dave - I think it is quite possible that millions of people have been exposed.

  15. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    I hear what you’re saying but I can’t quite get with you there, Lawrence. Based on polls, I still think there are 20 million+ adults out there - maybe more - that might still make a late decision to be vaccinated. Between their own lives and the drop in R0 from a larger critical infection- and vaccine-immune population, that’s still worth hoping for and working toward slowing this thing to get there with a lower body count IMO.

  16. Rusty–understand your arguments about why people would find the narrative attractive and your network graphs showing the actual spread. But could you comment more on the mechanics? Your article notes Abbott’s one TV appearance and then BOOM! Are you saying this superspreader event required nothing more than that? In my experience, even when a prominent missionary pushes a claim, it doesn’t rapidly spread unless political/ideological/corporate allies proactively try to push it to wider audiences via multiple channels. Can you comment as to whether the immediate spread was driven by highly motivated/compensated people promulgating the meme, or whether you think the spread was predominately grassroots/bottom-up–a lot of independent individual who had watched Fox and Friends and sent approving tweets

  17. We all want the lowest possible body count for sure.

    It’s my hope that the denominator is and has been ,much much much larger than we have known and therefore the hospitalization and death rate is much much much lower than we think. If that is the case herd immunity might be right around the corner.

    Our reaction to this virus has killed a lot of people , I have had dozens of older clients pass this year for what I would call —no reason to live --being locked away and not being able to see their children and grandchildren.

  18. Great stuff Rusty. I always find it interesting to see how we are being told to pick a side instead of allowing us to hold multiple viewpoints/truths in our minds at the same time. I feel fortunate to have found this group which encourages us to keep our minds open. One request…please turn those Quid graphs into NFTs

  19. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Really good question, Hubert. Some of that gets into intent, which is hard to parse. What I THINK because of the tight timeline between Biden’s remark and Abbott’s, and because the follow-up pieces, tweets and statements from other GOP politicians and authors came almost immediately (and largely echoed) is that Abbott sparked a largely spontaneous collective realization of the attractiveness of this framing. I don’t think it always has to happen that way with narrative, and more often I think you are 100% correct that it’s the result of coordinated missionary behaviors.

    But in the case of what we’re calling a viral narrative - which comes out of nowhere and grows very quickly - I think the initial stage is usually a message connecting with a ready audience. Since then, I think the success of that message has almost certainly influenced a more strategic and coordinated approach, but that’s supposition on my part and I don’t have any evidence of it. I’d really be interested in @Benajah’s take here.

  20. Avatar for yffras yffras says:

    Hopefully the picture of the graph posts in the comments. I receive this graph from BTR on an almost daily basis. Looking at the spread of the Delta variant in India and the UK, we are around day 52 and the peak in cases comes near day 76.

    The number of cases should peak around Labor Day and trail off forming the other side of the distribution curve.

  21. Avatar for yffras yffras says:

    The text isn’t very clear. My apologies. So look at the heavy 7 day moving average trend lines. Yellow = UK, Black = India, Blue = USA.

    We have quite the number of cases coming our way.

    However, the spike in deaths isn’t trending this way.

    I also find it curious to hear how people in companies are quarantining these days. If you are sick and have Covid you stay home. Everyone else keeps working, that is until you develop symptoms yourself, then you should stay home.

    The days are gone where “everyone” you were in contact with is quarantining as well. Those days have passed us by.

  22. Avatar for Zenzei Zenzei says:

    Exactly. And since we often think that a map is an accurate description of a terrain, we also think that a narrative is an accurate description of a situation,

  23. Avatar for doct doct says:

    I think “narratives” today in simple terms is how we are (or allow ourselves to) being brainwashed
    Dave Taylor

  24. Dunking on a kid who suffered injuries to his brain and is consigned to a wheelchair because his signature looks crude seems a bit small, Rusty. One can argue if he’s fit to serve or not, but to mock him because his motor skills are lacking? Disappointing.

  25. Avatar for Zenzei Zenzei says:


    your post made me look a little bit more into the Congressman. He seems to have perfectly good motor skills from the pictures and descriptions I’ve seen. I also have found multiple records of him having a paralyzing disability but no TBI.

    So regardless of what I think of Rusty choosing to point that out…qualifying it as “dunking on a kid” seems a bit off the mark.

  26. So, we’re going to argue over the phrase I used? Please. Call it whatever you like, it’s small.

    And pulling a trigger on a rifle is a lot different than getting your hand to write letters and words, which are visual abstractions of non-visual thought. Depending on the injury and what part of the brain was damaged, it’s quite conceivable that one could squeeze off a shot and in the next moment struggle to write cursive, or draw a clock face, etc.

    The Congressman must justify his right to represent his constituency and I have no problem debating if he’s up to the task given his condition or even given how he seems to struggle to write his name. But, to snidely mock him for it only serves to weaken Rusty’s position and the impact of his arguments.

  27. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Thanks for your comment, Mike. I can’t find evidence that his ability to sign is affected by his disability. If I do, I’ll happily delete what really is intended as a silly joke about a silly thing (no, I don’t really care about a signature).

  28. Two “narrative identification” criteria that I apply are:

    1.Do I perceive that I am being informed (given information to help me frame an understanding) or do I perceive that I am being offered a premise and there is an attempt to manipulate inherent to accepting the offered premise ?
    2.Am I being forced into also accepting a zero sum position if I accept the offered premise?

    I think a lot of what we are experiencing can be viewed thru the “it’s not an argument its a negotiation” window with positions transitory based upon available “common knowledge” fodder of the moment.

  29. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Thanks for this. Yes, a couple weeks ago I was happily surprised to see the UK case trend pulling back more quickly than I’d expected. I don’t think any policy response was tight enough to give much credit, so I’d generally assume we’re hitting logistic effects from reachable population and existing antibodies from a larger-than-thought antibody base in the population.

    The latter would be just as good for the US, although our pattern of multiple population centers across a wider geography makes me a little hesitant to apply the UK data as optimistically as I’d like to. We’re just a bit more prone to rolling waves.

  30. A close friend retired from a 35 year career as a respiratory therapist on 12/31/2019. He has been pointing to the DV curve out of India and the UK.

  31. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    That’s an interesting way to describe it. Is “being informed” vs. “being offered a premise” a difference in kind in your thinking, or do they exist on a continuum? I ask because I don’t know that it is ever really possible to deliver information without some premise packaging - the words, the order, the emphasis, the placement, the urgency all incorporate a premise, don’t they?

  32. A matter of degree and every run through going to be unique. Not going for perfection on my personal screening and I realize some skewing most likely present. I feel like a black sand miner looking for a few flakes and maybe a nugget or two. A lot of what Peter Z writes so much pushes my own bias confirmation buttons I have to take it in, revel in momentary exultation and then take a deep breath and back away a bit. But I do enjoy that moment.

    In my thoughts most all back and forth involves premise as you point out. Some of that has evolved from business where I have a targeted outcome for a client and framing is essential to traverse a regulatory process and achieve that outcome. As often happens when a trait is acquired thru work you become sensitive to it on your personal time and avoid it "cuz it feels like your at work!

  33. Avatar for Zenzei Zenzei says:

    words matter, mike, narratives matter.

    your words told a story that was, well, very generous to the congressman particularly given his track record of untruthfully trading on his disability and using it for political gain (I am training for the Paralympics, i would have gotten into West Point except for my disability)

    also - you keep saying brain injury and this was a spinal injury. two very different animals.

    so yeah, i am going to call you out on that.

  34. This cute variant of English (E-Prime - Wikipedia) excludes all forms of the verb “to be”, with the rationalization that no speaker is qualified to comment on what is and what isn’t. One can only speak of his subjective impressions of the world. I think there’s an interesting overlap with the ET aspiration of knowing the narrative water and distinguishing offered premises from information. Do you have any thoughts?

    Extreme certainty on the part of a speaker is a red flag for me, and in many cases saying that “A is B” implies some pretty ambitious certainty when you think about it.

  35. The opposite pathology is to lose the forest for the trees. In the first case, (map/territory), you focus on a higher level of abstraction and miss out on useful information at a lower level. In the second (forest/trees), too much attention to a lower level of abstraction obscures the higher.
    These two can be unified: we are able to think about only a narrow range of scales at any moment.

  36. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    That’s interesting. I may have to play with that idea a bit as we build out our logic for fiat news detection in Radiant.

  37. Avatar for Zenzei Zenzei says:

    I totally agree with that @Landvermesser. I think about it as the concept of granularity or altitude. The coarser the granularity, the higher the altitude - the easier it is to see the big picture but at a cost of details.

    I think of the territory as the bottommost level of reality. This is where your map says - “there is a bridge over this ravine” and the territory (the real world) has no such bridge. And so people merrily drive themselves off of a cliff confident in their map.

    The two concepts are very close cousins.

  38. I know this is a bit of a tangent on this thread, but @Zenzei 's last comment and this WSJ article (Millennials’ High-Earning Years Are Here, but It Doesn’t Feel That Way - WSJ) today got me thinking about the narratives of people driving themselves off “bridges” because their maps are wrong.

    All the narratives about Millenials seem to follow this same pattern: Millenials got into too much debt going to college, never got jobs commensurate with this debt and now are struggling to make it in the world that just keeps throwing hurdles at them. All of which IMO, points a finger directly at the young boomers/old GenX-er’s who have been drawing the maps the whole time. I’d be interested in seeing the network graph on these stories.

  39. Michael Scott followed his GPS’s directions into a lake. That scene was funny not just for the physical comedy but also for the knowledge that everyone who watched it was able to picture in their mind at least one person they knew who would have done the same thing.

  40. This might seem like a strange comment but my 19 year old son who has Autism Spectrum Disorder and some fine motor skill coordination problems has a signature similar to Madison Cawthorn’s signature. It does look like a little kid’s signature and there may not be a good reason why his signature is that way but it takes away from your main argument about narratives. The comment sort of reminded me of late night comedians showing a photo of the subject and saying “North Carolina Representative and identical twin of Pee Wee Herman, Madison Cawthorn”. It is acceptable in a comedy routine but doesn’t advance serious journalism.

  41. I was reading this and it reminded me of a TED talk I watched a long time ago. I did some Googling and found the video, it’s 3 minutes and totally worthwhile to this topic. How a Narrative Goes Viral, is very similar to TED Derek Sivers: How to Start a Movement
    That first shirtless guy dancing is the original missionary of this movement. But that’s not enough. It requires someone else to show that they heard the missionary, and they buy in to the narrative. Then you get a few more disciples showing that they too hear and believe. Those first disciples are key. They let everyone know it’s “safe” to follow the new narrative.
    I think we’ve all been to weddings, and concerts and felt the same thing. Someone has to break the ice and dance without fear. Then two or three more will join. Eventually everyone gets the message and nobody cares (sometimes alcohol helps).

  42. 21st century society is a unified field of narratives. The only solution to your mind being shut out to other facts by a narrative has to be another narrative. This second narrative which opens your mind to facts has more reliable characteristics, such as better correspondence to all relevant events, or a more coherent interpretation of events, or is somehow a more useful and practical way to view events. That is the value of Epsilon Theory, it does that more often than not. The frequent claims about science appear to be simple appeals to authority, and not about science, which values skepticism as intrinsic to its method. A real scientist values all opinions by testing them to see what validity they may have. A science that rules out opinions, even “Covid is being spread by illegal immigrants”, is not really science at all. The problem is that the ideological view (ie woke socialism or the political variants of populist nationalism, for example) are not looking for any narrative beyond their particular creedal views of events. The media have been captured by the preferences of their audience. The internet has turned to advertising and marketing, and in the end they are selling themselves as curated information sources. The medium is the message. The internet is becoming more and more like the Shopping Channel of cable TV days, except now they are selling attitudes, along with all the rest. No wonder the Tech Titans want to leave and go to Outer Space.

  43. Every letter in that signature is carefully drawn and easily legible. What concerns me most is that this Congressional Representative appears to have misspelled his own name. Even these days we need demand better attention to detail from Federal elected representatives.

  44. We can remain hopeful, but I’m unclear on what natural immunity really means. What if we referred to it as a “naturally acquired individual immune-system response whose efficacy is dependent upon both the type of trigger which caused it and the individual’s genetic-specific response to it”.
    Hmmm, too wordy, but perhaps we should not assume that natural-immunity will provide more benefit than it has the potential to when confronted by a virus which changes frequently. Do all vaccines work equally well (apparently not quite)? Will each variant create a robust immune response in someone who survives it? Will the most broad spectrum coverage come from getting a vaccine, waiting, then exposing oneself to the virus to fill in the missing pieces?
    Achieving herd immunity predominantly via natural immunity seems like a very bumpy ride.

  45. I hadn’t heard of Madison Cawthorn. I looked him up. His signature on Wikipedia (Madison Cawthorn - Wikipedia) is the same. If I am writing quickly sometimes my letters blur so I can see a “w” becoming a “u” and a “rn” becoming an “n”. He is consistent so maybe he originally misspelled it but kept it that way (may help prevent forgeries). He is in a wheelchair due to a car accident so perhaps that affects his signature.

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