We speak of toxic debates, when there is good reason to doubt that all participants are sincerely interested in establishing common ground and finding a consensus on controversial issues. Narratives can be toxic, too, when they are employed strategically to initiate or sustain toxic debates, fostering “centrifugal” narrative dynamics (Sommer 2023). The toxic nature of harmful “strategic narratives” (Miskimmon et al. 2013) may be a question of (1) content, e.g., falsehoods, disinformation, conspiracy theories, fake news, or hate speech; (2) a lack of transparency with respect to origins and proliferation paths which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to identify senders and disseminators; and (3) intended effects such as triggering confirmation bias or fostering ontological insecurity (Kinnvall et al. 2021).
Invoking freedom of speech in pluralist democracies, toxic narratives are typically designed to exploit legal loopholes, violate unwritten rules, and test taboos, with the aim of redefining the spectrum of acceptability and tellability (for instance, in racist, extremist, and nationalist discourses). Toxic narratives are typically part of a larger framing strategy or image campaign which aims at unfolding a centrifugal narrative dynamics with the goal of destabilizing democracy, curbing the influence of independent media, and sidestepping public debate in order to influence public opinion, for example by spreading disinformation online. The abuse of stories and storytelling has lately received considerable attention (Fernandes 2017; Meretoja and Freeman 2023); see also the recently completed “dangers of narrative” project at the University of Tampere (Mäekelä et al. 2021). At worst, toxic narratives are part of state propaganda, justifying wars of aggression, torture, and genocide.
⇢ see also Counter-(master-)narrative dynamics, Frames of migration, Narrative dynamics, Narratives on migration, Racism, Terrorism
References and further reading:
Kinnvall, Catarina, Ian Manners, and Jennifer Mitzen, eds. 2021. Ontological Insecurity in the European Union. London: Routledge.
Mäkelä, Maria, Samuli Björninen, Laura Karttunen, Matias Nurminen, Juha Raipolda, and Tytti Rantanen. 2021. “Dangers of Narrative: A Critical Approach to Narratives of Personal Experience in Contemporary Story Economy.” Narrative 29.2: 139–159.
Meretoja, Hanna, and Mark Freeman, eds. 2023. The Use and Abuse of Stories: New Directions in Narrative Hermeneutics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Miskimmon, Alister, Ben O’Loughlin, and Laura Roselle. 2013. Strategic Narratives: Communiction, Power, and the New World Order. New York, NY and London: Routledge.
Sommer, Roy. 2023. “Migration and Narrative Dynamics.” In The Routledge Companion to Narrative Theory, edited by Paul Dawson and Maria Mäkelä, 498–511. New York, NY and London: Routledge.
Work Package: 2, 4, 5