It happens without fail. A “political” incident happens, and within the first few hours a particular narrative coalesces and is repeated hundreds or thousands of time by people on a particular side of the issue. The recent shooting of US Congressman Steve Scalise and four others by a hate-filled left-wing asshole was only the latest example of this phenomenon. In this incident, the narrative put forth by liberals who refuse to contemplate that their toxic rhetoric fed the shooter’s rage is that the GOP is dooming millions to death via its efforts to modify ObamaCare, thus shifting the blame onto the Right.

This narrative is a farcical deflection, of course, but it’s illustrative of how initial responses to hot-button events develop and coalesce in the modern social-media age.

The language of epidemiology, already present in common parlance (e.g. memes or videos can “go viral”), is quite apt here: narratives, like memes and videos, spread like diseases, with “carriers” passing on that to which they have been exposed.

As with viral propagation and disease vectors, we should expect to find a Patient Zero: the originator of the narrative. Figuring out Patient Zero for viral vids is usually trivially easy. For memes, though, it can be a bit harder, especially if the meme is just a graphic.

For narratives, though? Sometimes, something is traceable. The phrase “virtue signalling” was traceable because the originator took credit after it had gone viral. But, a narrative like this “republicans are killing millions by taking away Obamacare?” Not so much.

I surmise that, the more nonsensical a narrative is, the less likely it is to find a genuine Patient Zero, if only because naming a point of origin of something that doesn’t make sense might sap the narrative’s strength. For example, decades back, I read that 40 species a day were disappearing due to Amazon deforestation. That stuck with me in my naive, environmental youth, until I started to ponder a – how they knew, and b – whether it was even true. I later found out the source: an environmental activist, and also learned of its veracity: he made it up. Thus, the narrative lost its power. By being sourced, it lost its “common knowledge” cachet and instead became understood (at least by me) to be a partisan talking point rather than a useful datum. Smart people who choose to use such narratives are often aware, either consciously or subconsciously, that there may be a problem with the alleged facts, and that they’re better off not sourcing anything lest others see through the narrative.

But, if I were to speculate as to whence narratives emerge, I’d look at the major players in the opinion world. On the Left, we have the New York Times, Daily Kos and the Huffington Post. On the Right, it’s a bit more diffuse. There is Fox News and there is Breitbart, but there are a host of other sites that are as kooky as Kos, but not nearly as popular.

Another aspect of the Patient Zero phenomenon is the degree of contagiousness of a narrative. Here we might conclude that the more confirmation-bias-y, the more affirming, and the more hyperbolic a narrative is, the more likely it’ll spread. We might also conclude that the more incendiary and damaging the root incident is, the more rapidly the viral narrative will spread. In the case at hand, where it is blatantly obvious that a hard-left, politically active person deliberately and methodically set out to murder Republican Congressmen because of his deep hatred for Trump and the Right in general, a hot-and-heavy rebuttal narrative would easily infect a populace desperate for some way to avoid looking in the mirror.

Of course, not all narratives are new, or unique to a particular event. Many are long-running, and rooted in ideological desires. They are often trotted out when they fit circumstances. In this recent case, the “GOP Softball shooter,” for want of a better identification, there were early attempts to shoehorn a gun-control narrative into the debate. In particular, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, before any facts about the shooter, what guns he used, or how/where he got them, were even known, got on camera and decried how “93 million Americans a day” are lost to gun violence. Obviously, he misspoke the number, and that embarrassment is being roundly mocked on the Internet, but the broader point is that he consciously decided to leverage this incident in pursuit of a policy without knowing whether that policy would have made the slightest difference in the incident. But, I believe, that as it emerged that the shooter didn’t use an “assault weapon,” the anti-gun narrative failed to catch on. At this moment, at least, it wasn’t an infectious enough fit, but it’ll be lying in wait for the next time someone can press it into service.

In fact, most narratives are rehashes of previous ones, altered slightly to fit the current environment. Again, they are similar to diseases, in that diseases are rarely new-in-box, and in that Patient Zero doesn’t have to contrive the narrative from scratch, but merely put it out there in a contagious form.

There is one major difference between an actual infectious disease and a toxic narrative. The former may require substantial efforts to avoid and contain. The latter? People can simply choose not to repeat it. That they do is entirely on them, and that they do speaks very poorly for their moral compasses. Patient Zero’s ability to infect a social-media populace has far more to do with the populace’s desire to be infected than with the virulence of the infection itself.

In other words, if you’re blathering partisan nonsense, it’s your own fault.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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