Libya and ‘Weaponized Narrative’

I’ve been interested in the Libya situation since news of the rebellion hit the mainstream media early in 2011 with strange stories of British troops being arrested in Bengazi. There are competing narratives positing Gaddafi as a mad despot or a benevolent philosopher king. After the NATO intervention we got stories of the rebels killing and torturing their opponents, supporters of the former regime. In particular there was a narrative, particularly in the alternative or ‘non-mainstream media’, about about a pogrom against black Libyans:

This narrative appears to be well documented. There are several videos available on YouTube about black people being terrorised, tortured and killed together with other Libyans who are suspected of being loyal to the former regime. Very little seemed to be coming out of the mainstream US and UK media.

Recently a story titled “In Libya, the Captors Have Become the Captive” by Robert F Worth was published in the New York Times. This story epitomises the mainstream narrative that Gaddafi was a particularly brutal dictator and that the situation following his overthrow is one in which the imposed government, the National Transitional Council (NTC), is trying to establish justice and democracy but has to deal with a will to vengeance by Libyans in the various and largely autonomous militias that comprised the rebel forces. Worth presents us with the story of a militia leader in charge of prisoners who had been prison guards under the Gaddafi regime. We are presented with a former guard who had gratuitously tortured prisoners and with a Gaddafi soldier who had murdered the brother of the militia leader. We are told that the tables have been turned and now the prisoners who he had been tortured are able to torture their former captives. It is brutal but there is an inevitability and a certain justice about it.

Worth’s narrative is a ‘human interest story that invites us to sympathise with the rebel torturers. It does not talk about the pogroms against black people or give the big picture. Its effect and arguably its purpose is to insinuate the general from a particular. It is well written and worth reading but we come away with a only a story, with only a perspective, with maybe a fragment of the truth but one that is not the whole truth nor only the truth. Because it is well written we think we know more but we do not we have just heard a story.

Stories can powerfully influence the way we think. An article in the Disiformation blog referencing a Wired article suggests that US government agencies are looking at “weaponized narrative” as part of their propaganda strategies. It’s surely not a big stretch to connect the dots and ask whether Worth’s NYT article is just such a “weaponized narrative”.