OpinionOthers

The power of narratives

By Jethu Abraham

At its core, strategic narratives may be the answer to Joseph Nye’s question on how to understand changing influence in a changing environment. This was prophetically put forward in 1990, as Nye, dubbed the father of soft power science, wondered on which road the US would have to take, if it still hoped to maintain continued influence in a world that would no longer be impressed by Cold War style military hegemony alone.

Strategic narratives are an inherent part of soft power and if utilised well, sets the stage to draw people towards a common goal or objective, through attraction and consensus. These narratives which help to propagate soft power values, culture or policies aims to engage audiences in common thought and action.

Strategic narratives have been quite useful for countries in the Global South especially, as it has created a more levelled playing field for international relations and a pluralistic marketplace. Though strategic narratives, as an ideology, lacks an analytical framework to measure its effectiveness, it may still be used as a means to project a country’s character to the rest of the world. Strategic narratives can also be looked at as a fluid concept which can be modified depending on the context.

A study done by Khaldarova in 2021, on Russia’s popular television network, Channel 1’s narrative about Ukrainians before and after the Euromaidan revolution, for over two years from 2012 to 2014, illustrates how strategic narratives can change over time and how the mass media can play a role to facilitate that portrayal. The data, which was a selection done on the basis of word tags and social media engagement showed how the channel, prior to the protests, portrayed Ukraine initially as a younger brother and Russia as the big brother and after the protests, vilified Ukrainians—identifying them as an enemy and a threat to the Russky Mir (Russian world).

On the domestic front, national elections in a country are an interesting time to unleash narrative power, when candidates analyse gaps in the system and cleverly weave it into their campaigning plans, to put it up as their party manifesto. This has been a time-tested initiative, that has often squared the opinions of even the most discerning voter — to opt for someone he would never have done otherwise.

With the advent of the digital age and the overwhelming rush of content today, narratives very often are loosely coupled with misinformation, disinformation or just plain old fake news to garner likes or alter perceptions. This means that today, be it in a democracy or a hybrid democratic setup, the average voter does not, in fact, go through a simple step of selecting the best candidate who represent him or the national interests, but also have the agonizing process of steering clear from the partisan politics that surround the candidates. Yet, the magnetic power of narratives on the international platform or a national election is undeniable, just like a good old story, and as Nye himself adds — “its all about whose story wins.”

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