Rogue Tweeters: A Fight For Narrative Control in the Alternative-Fact World

Regardless of truth, the best storyteller wins: how else could a quarter of Americans, many struggling financially, ‘relate’ to a billionaire real estate mogul?

When Badlands National Park staff tweeted data regarding climate change in response to the Trump administration’s social media ban on the National Park Service, they were quickly forced to delete the tweets. Still, point made: you’re not entitled to your own alternative facts.

An ‘unofficial resistance team’ inside the White House recently created its own ‘rogue’ Twitter account to respond to the barrage of executive orders streaming from Trump’s pen. We cannot verify the actual tweeter: “We will not reveal our identity to anyone!” Given its 587,000 followers in one week, this is a further sign that the battle for truth is being waged.

Really, this is a war on narrative. Humans are, in the words of literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall, a ‘storytelling animal.’ Interestingly, our brains are not constructed for story. Gottschall argues that “glitches in its design” make us vulnerable to the seductive power of narrative.

Consider how stories originate. The earliest human communications were pantomimes, facial cues, monosyllabic utterances, perhaps music — percussion would have been simplest given you keep rhythm with your hands, though flutes date back pretty early as well.

While we’ll never know the exact origins of language, linguist David Crystal cites five leading theories as described by 19th-century Danish linguist Otto Jespersen:

  • Imitating the environment, especially animal calls
  • Instinctual responses to emotions and feelings
  • Spontaneous reactions to environmental stimulation
  • Physical survival skills, such as clearing lands and building shelter, that produced communal, rhythmical grunts
  • Sounds associated with the romantic side of life—play, love, song—inspired our forebears to formulate verbal expressions to represent them
  • Whatever its roots, language soon became a vehicle for communication. To best transmit these tales we had to memorize them, which is why mythological epics are mnemonic devices. Our brain remembers information easier by chunking, putting verse into categories to create a meaningful story. If something sounds like something else—in this case, rhyming—we’re more apt to recall it.

    This is a hallmark of Trump’s campaign: unforgettable sound bytes that stick to its intended target. While many accuse him of lacking intellectual prowess—misspelled words with poor grammar are rampant on his Twitter feed—he tapped into a deeply embedded psychological trait to exploit his audience.

    Anthropologist Steven Mithen understands this technique. If language was indeed social, the application of language skills to the non-social world (toolmaking, shelter construction, politics) gave early adopters an upper hand—most likely why members of clergy were exclusively male. Control the books, control the language, you control the knowledge. Steve Bannon’s demand that the media shut up makes more sense in this light. Mithen continues:

    The chapel of social intelligence began to be invaded by non-social information. Those individuals who could exploit these invasions to increase their own knowledge about the non-social world would have been at a selective advantage.

    Mithen observes that we still predominantly talk about social issues, or, in modern parlance, gossip. By definition gossip need not be true; alternative facts have always been part of that compulsion. Before language, humans relied on direct habitual observation in order to communicate. Television closed the visual distance between individuals. Suddenly the person on the screen is right beside you. How else could a quarter of Americans, many struggling financially, ‘relate’ to a billionaire real estate mogul?

    Gottschall points out that stories have historically been about problems. Joseph Campbell also noticed this trend in global mythological traditions. The ‘hero’ had to surmount an obstacle, be it an existential dilemma or transformative combat with evil. Since we all confront personal struggles, we relate to others who share similar narratives, regardless of the truth of the story.

    Though we desire a happy ending—an innate optimism bias—our brains are tuned to notice environmental dangers, just as our body does not alert us while in homeostasis, though an abnormal heart murmur quickly rises to the level of consciousness. The seduction of danger, be it a shady immigrant or the shadow of a terrorist, stimulates us to action. In this case perception is reality.

    Gottschall calls this the ‘problem structure,’ the main drivers of narratives, great predicaments of human nature. This structure, he continues, “suggests that the human mind was shaped for story, so that it could be shaped by story.”

    What are we other than the collection of our stories? Where do we learn these stories other than those around us, the leaders and parents and peers we choose to pay attention to? The core of who we are is nothing but a collection of personal memories. Since our memories are constantly rewritten during recall, we’re writing (and editing) reality every day.

    Alternative facts are nothing new. What’s changed is the avalanche of opinions regularly passing in front of our eyes. Like the rest of Trump’s campaign, his administration is exploiting cognitive quirks, the longstanding tradition of ignoring facts for an appealing narrative. Rogue accounts are one antidote, but as with any story, willing eyes are needed for that tale to succeed. In the end it’s a battle for narrative. In a world of competing platforms whose story wins is anyone’s guess. 


    Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

    Related Articles

    How does alcohol affect your brain?

    Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.

    (Photo by Angie Garrett/Wikimedia Commons)
    Mind & Brain
    • Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
    • Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
    • Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
    Keep reading Show less

    Scientists sequence the genome of this threatened species

    If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.

    Surprising Science
    • A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
    • It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
    • Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.

    If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

    Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.

    elephant by Guillaume le Clerc

    Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons

    13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.

    It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

    But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

    John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

    What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

    Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.

    Why cauliflower is perfect for the keto diet

    The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.

    Purple cauliflower. (Photo: Shutterstock)
    Surprising Science
    • The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
    • The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
    • It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
    Keep reading Show less