New cinema chair studies "narrative IEDs" -- rumors
Daniel Bernardi returned from a 10-month deployment in Iraq followed by a nine-month deployment in the South Pacific with a new appreciation for a disruptive and potentially deadly weapon: rumor.
Now, the new chair of the SF State cinema department -- and Naval Reserve officer -- has received a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of the Navy to study the impact of rumor on counterinsurgency operations.
In an area undergoing great strife, such as a war zone, Bernardi views rumors as "narrative IEDs" -- improvised explosive devices. Like their deadly roadside cousins, rumors are low-cost, low-tech weapons that can be used by anyone to disrupt the efforts of larger and more sophisticated forces.
Military commanders who dismiss rumors as "only lies" ignore them at their peril, Bernardi suggests. Rumors can reveal a population's deep anxieties and prevailing worldviews, which can be essential knowledge in the battle for hearts and minds that defines a counterinsurgency operation.
His study will provide a way for soldiers in the field to track rumors, figure out which ones have the power to become weapons and offer suggestions for "disarming" them before they do significant damage to counterinsurgency operations.
In places like Afghanistan and Iraq, "you're trying to communicate with an extremely diverse population with distinct histories in a highly charged political landscape," Bernardi said. Against this backdrop, "rumors make sense and proliferate" in a way that insurgents can exploit to their advantage.
He points to a pervasive rumor in 2005 in Iraq, when multinational forces began a cattle vaccination program in the country. Although the inoculation campaign was meant to protect food supplies and counter insurgent propaganda about the U.S. military, a rumor soon spread that the U.S. forces were poisoning Iraqi livestock.
"When you have a discredited government and authority figure, as was the case in Iraq in 2005, when people don't have faith in those institutions, when you start shutting down or controlling media," Bernardi said, "you create a particularly volatile space for the spread of rumors."
The grant will help Bernardi and a team of researchers at SF State and Arizona State University develop a database of rumors that could undermine counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan. The team's goal is to determine which rumors pose the greatest threat, in large part because they contain the narrative threads that allow them to thrive in the cultural context of the war zone.
To do that, the team is working on a way to compare a rumor database with an Islamic Extremist Narrative database created by Bernardi and others. The cross-checking could reveal which rumors are apt to take hold in a population and prove particularly dangerous to the counterinsurgency. The researchers are also developing a model to show how rumors change and spread at different speeds as they move across media in the region.
Bernardi and the others hope to create a field applet that can be used with mobile devices and would allow soldiers to upload new rumors to see if and how they're spreading. As part of the study, the researchers will also develop countermeasures that the U.S. military can deploy against specific rumors.
If studying the role of narrative in counterinsurgency operations sounds like a strange intersection of interests, consider Bernardi's unique career convergences. He is a noted cultural studies scholar with a focus on critical race theory, early cinema and the role of whiteness in film and television. His book "Star Trek and History: Race-ing Toward a White Future" traces the shifting role of race through the popular sci-fi series.
As a Naval Reserve officer, he served from May 2009 to February 2010 with U.S. Special Forces in Iraq, training soldiers in combat camera operations and managing embedded journalists. His most recent active duty tour took him to the U.S. Pacific Fleet, where he served as public affairs officer for the fleet's annual humanitarian mission in the region, Pacific Partnership.
As the new chair of the cinema department, Bernardi thinks that the narrative IED project fits in well with the multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary research pursued by SF State's diverse collection of scholars.
"The military has begun to look to humanists and social scientists to begin to answer some questions in the very complex populations involved in insurgency and counterinsurgency," Bernardi said. His scholarship in narrative studies provides unique expertise to the U.S. military at a time when it is searching for new counterinsurgency strategies.
But he acknowledges that his dual role as an academic and an officer may have made the Navy more comfortable with his research. "As a left-leaning scholar who's actually been in uniform during a counterinsurgency operation, it does make a difference."