Earlier this month, the United States Special Operations Command gathered a group of experts in New York City to discuss a significant threat facing the nation. SOCOM has a storied history of staying at the forefront of the warfighting endeavor; taking the fight to places Americans don’t always expect and operating beyond the confines of the conventional war fighting apparatus, but in this new battlespace, it isn’t combat hardened grit or superior firepower that’ll make the difference — it’s embracing a new understanding of how narratives can shape the world’s view of itself.

Understanding just what that means, and how exactly it plays into SOCOM’s warfighting role, is no easy undertaking. In an effort to better appreciate the importance of actively managing narratives, SOFREP spoke to one of the very experts SOCOM turned to: Dr. Ajit Maan.

Dr. Maan is the head of a think tank known as Narrative Strategies, where she and her colleagues, comprised primarily of veteran experts, work to address the sort of narrative manipulation strategies employed by America’s opponents abroad.

Everything from ISIS recruitment efforts to Russian propaganda fall within Dr. Maan and her team’s purview, but unlike other think-tanks that only focus on how academic theory applies to the real world, Narrative Strategies is capable of more than consulting in the form of advising clients – prompting Dr. Maan to characterize her group as more of a “think-and-do” tank. Beyond just consulting, they’re able to actually implement narrative strategies in a proactive and operational way. In short, they’re not trying to mitigate the negative effects of information warfare, they’re looking to get into the fight.

As Dr. Maan will tell you herself, when it comes to managing narratives, being proactive is the name of the game, and unfortunately, that’s where the United States is falling behind its peers and competitors.

“A narrative is a strategic story,” Dr. Maan explained, “told in a certain way for a certain purpose. The purpose is to influence you. The way is to trigger your identity.”

Triggering a person’s identity means finding a way to give a narrative a personal meaning for the recipient, eliciting a response by evoking personal beliefs, biases, and even experiences. Propaganda, a common tool for manipulating a narrative, aims to make an issue personal, so the recipient absorbs the message in a way that seems almost interwoven with the fabric of their own identity.

“Disinformation campaigns are about meaning and identity. If a narrative gives you meaning in a positive way, you’ll stick with it,” she said.