Shaun Cammack of The Narratives Project [Podcast] - BCB #20
“Why the hell are people talking about this so differently? That's the question that we're trying to answer.”
For our second episode of The Transformers, we had a wonderfully candid conversation with Shaun Cammack, founder of The Narratives Project. Shaun’s new project started with a tweet, and ended with his abandonment of Twitter. In between, he applied his background in cultural psychology and qualitative research to understand how people can build such different narratives around the same event.
BCB: Start out with telling us how The Narratives Project came to be.
Shaun Cammack: Serendipity, kind of. I studied cultural psychology at the University of Chicago, looking at pluralism and cultural conflict and things like that.
And I was writing a PhD research proposal to continue my work, moving into cultural evolution. I was specifically interested in the evolution of political narratives online, how a political narrative emerges, how it evolves, why it changes, why two groups of people will immediately have a different perspective on a given news event.
As I was writing, that was when the Kyle Rittenhouse shooting occurred. And what I was watching, the way that people were talking about it was just a really interesting real world example of what I was trying to understand. So I sketched out [an] analysis of how, through transmission, omission and mutation, divergent narratives were emerging around it.
Social media is really interesting in that you have really rapid iterations of people telling each other stories, which means that the evolution occurs very, very quickly, and the divergence occurs very, very quickly… And (my analysis) got quite a bit of traction. A bunch of folks said, “This is a kind of analysis that you should keep trying to do.” My colleague came on board to help me with it and we ended up being introduced to some folks who wanted to try and turn it into a real organization and not just a side shop. So in that spring we were able to secure funding to turn it into a real organization.
What we were trying to do is figure out how we can produce news content, news analysis that looks at narratives as an objective study with the purpose of mitigating the problems of what a lot of people in the space are calling polarization, what I might call social animosity. And we developed a methodology that I'm really proud of. Our data set was really cool. How we were pulling data was really cool.
BCB: How did you develop your method?
Shaun Cammack: We had a social media listening tool that had access to basically Twitter's, the full firehose, the full API of Twitter. And so we would query this in a variety of ways to identify what kind of stories that people were talking about. Then we would aggregate tweets, which was our data set, tweets about these different topics and things, and then we'd analyze them. Based on some of my masters, I did a lot of qualitative coding.
The question that I think people have was, why the hell are people talking about this so differently? That's the question that we're trying to answer. Well, it's because people with these sets of priors and experiences interpret this event in this way. And we know that because we've gone on to Twitter to see how people are talking about it, aggregated those conversations, analyzed them, and presented it back to you.
BCB: You’re using technological tools along with a human perspective. You didn't just follow the hashtags with someone who was advertising their YouTube account, you were looking for commentary. You're looking for people actually discussing this with one another.
Shaun Cammack: This is before we had our tool. And we recognize like, how much of a problem that is methodologically, because Twitter's trending page doesn't even mean – it doesn't have really anything to do with frequency. A lot of people could be talking about something, and it never shows up on the Twitter trending page. I honestly have no idea how they weight things for the Twitter trending page, but we just had the raw data.
These are all the tweets that are on Twitter right now and do a query in a variety of ways to see how people were actually talking about it. And that was pretty important for us to get because particularly when you're doing qualitative work, you need to because it is inherently subjective research and inherently pretty discretionary.
BCB: Now that you've done all of this study, what do you think is the biggest block to people overcoming their preferred narratives?
Shaun Cammack: You can't and you won't, and we shouldn't make people try. Narratives aren't a problem, and they're not something to be overcome. This is a difference, I think, between maybe myself and some other people in the space.
I think a lot of folks in the space see narratives. They sort of use it as a placeholder for misinformation or factless belief. And if you think that, then the answer should be, well, strip yourself of your narratives and just look at the bare facts. But you can't just look at bare facts. You need narratives to interpret fact.
You need narratives to interpret what's going on around you. I actually think that trying to get people to overcome their narrative, or said another way, to get people to change their minds about things that are deeply held to them, because narratives also aren't superficial things. They're rooted in people's deep beliefs about the way the world is and their morality and their metaphysics, and it's really important to them.
So if we were to say “Well, in order to have peace or a functioning democracy, you need to overcome, that is to say, you need to change your mind about the way you see the entire world” and to come to approach people who are already a little bit on edge, already experiencing a little bit of animosity. And to say you need to change your mind will produce more social animosity. There are winning narratives and losing narratives, and you're forcing people to fight for their belief, which is not what you want.
What you want is for people to see that there can be that people with different interpretations, different worldviews, or different people can understand different news events differently reasonably. And that's okay. What you have, what we're trying to get people to see is that difference is actually permissible and it's fine. Just because somebody disagrees with you, that doesn't mean that one of you has to lose.
BCB: It sounds like you want people to focus more on, “What's another way to look at this?” and taking the winning out of the equation.
Shaun Cammack: We're pretty uncharitable as a species. If you ask somebody about a deeply held position they have, “Why do people disagree with you about this?” the answer that you're probably going to get is “Well, they disagree with me about this because they're ignorant.” And if they're not ignorant, then they're stupid. And if they're not stupid, well, then they're brainwashed. And if they're not brainwashed, then they're evil. And it usually goes in that order.
Usually what you say is, well, they just don't know. They don't know the experience of these other people. And if they do know the experience of these other people… they just don't have the cognitive capacity to see the way the world is.
And if that's your conclusion, then it makes sense why political violence becomes justifiable very, very quickly. What I'm trying to do is to show that the answer to the question “Why do people disagree with you about this?” is that people can have reasonable disagreements about things. That's the answer. People disagree with you because they have different beliefs and those beliefs have them interpret things differently. And their beliefs and those interpretations are both reasonable and it's fine.
BCB: On your website, you say you want to promote mindfulness and it sounds like that's tied into this process. What do you mean by mindfulness and what do you think is the best way to achieve that?
Shaun Cammack: It’s tough because you don't want to be unaware that your view is a view. I see this view a lot from highly educated people, which is that they don't see their own perspective as a perspective. They see their perspective as the truth. When we talk about mindfulness, I guess what we're trying to say is, look, your viewpoint is a viewpoint.
And that doesn't mean you can't fight about it. You have to. This is another thing I think I disagree with some folks in the space about, is some people just want everybody to come together and sing “Kumbaya” and love one another. But if you're on one side of a deeply moral issue and you see that issue violated, you have to have an emotional response to it. If you don't have an emotional response to it, you don't have a sense of morality.
It's okay for people to disagree and get upset and think that other people are really violating something. [But] we have to be aware that our points of views are points of views and not the absolute, unfiltered, perfect truth in a sort of very detached, scientific way.
BCB: You have this unfortunately unusual view of this. It would be helpful if more people had this overhead perspective on controversial topics. What advice do you have for journalists who have to navigate all these different narratives?
Shaun Cammack: Be transparent. Say what you think. If you're covering abortion and you're pro-choice, don't pretend you're objective, because you're not. Particularly with the way journalism is today, people aren't even trying to be objective. It's debatable as to whether you could ever be objective, but they're certainly not even trying now… Understand that narratives are not a problem, and understand that your perspective is a perspective.
BCB: For people who are not in the bridging space, who are just the average users of social media, what advice do you have for them as to how they can contribute to bringing the temperature down a little bit and paying attention to other people's narratives?
Shaun Cammack: Pay attention to your own first. Consider if you should even be on social media. If being on social media is making you hate people, get off it. That's a pretty quick answer to that part of it.
Otherwise, just go and live your own life. The world isn't happening in DC. Your world is existing right in front of you, and what you should be doing is fulfilling whatever your moral sense is to the best of your ability, not worrying that other people are doing it differently. That's what you should do. Just go home and make a good life.
BCB: When the Narrative Project gets merch, please make T shirts that say “The World Isn't Happening in DC.”
Shaun Cammack: Yeah.
BCB: Also, “Go Home and Live Your Own Life.”
Shaun Cammack: I got off Twitter. I was on it for a long time doing work for the Narrative Project, and I bailed on it earlier this year because it was making me a worse person. Even though I'm trying to approach it in the way I am, it was just making me a worse person, and it was pulling me away from the thing that actually mattered, which is my proximal experience of things that are happening right in front of me.
Because the truth is, people tweeting things is not going to affect change. It's not. You can actually affect change in your real life. It’s much harder, but you can actually do it, and so you should, because it's just more important to just get off the internet and live a good life.
The Narratives Project has joined this newsletter which “envision[s] a world where people operate on a shared set of facts about important issues of the day.”
A look at the process The Narratives Project uses to study perspectives on divisive news stories.
The Evergreen Affair: A Social Justice Society
Shaun’s Master’s thesis from the University of Chicago. In the podcast, he mentions that his work here was instrumental in creating the foundation of The Narratives Project.
Strategies for Getting Offline
Having done it himself, Shaun offers hard-won advice on saving priceless time from meaningless internet content.