People have attempted to influence public opinion since the rise of civilization. It is an essential component of the political structures into which we have evolved. However, the weaponization of public opinion is a novel, threatening development in how we interact. The advent of the
internet and mass media have made possible the large scale manipulation ofpopulations via
targeted, accessible, multi modal messaging, which can now exist under the guise of anonymity.
In a sea of a billion voices, pinpointing individual sources has become incredibly difficult .
An effort that, in some ways, is comparable to the difficulty of identifying who screamed “Fire!”
in a crowd. Some will argue that this is intended, contending that anonymity is required for the
resources the internet provides. Others, however, fret about the unintended consequences that
this lack of accountability might bring about in the long-term .
No matter which perspective is correct, it is our opinion that NATO must be aware of the threat
that our inter connectedness has wrought. Tactics targeting the public will not fade with time;
they will become more efficient. They will aim at broader audiences. Moreover, they will
become increasingly convincing. Already, technological advancements have showcased their
ability to do exactly this. One does not have to look further than the 2016 DNC information leaks to confirm the rapidity with which information is acquired and spread to the advantage of anopposing party.
Social media, news networks, automation algorithms, artificial intelligence, mental health
guidance, and, perhaps, even our own physiology are expected to evolve rapidly in the near
future. All of these are working to make us more connected, more data-driven, and more curious.
It will be an exciting new era of human interaction. However, the roads in our minds are not
one-way streets. Whilst people receive information, they are simultaneously giving away
information and data. As it stands, simple lines of codes will one day be able to identify and
describe everything about us. Our habits, our friends, our faiths, our cultures, our preferences,
and even our vices. For the first time, war will not deal with exposed bodies. It will deal with
exposed minds instead. It is this new avenue of war we have dubbed cognitive warfare.
Evolution of Non-Kinetic Warfare Origins
It starts, as with most things in the nature of modern war, in the Cold War. Mutually assured
destruction (MAD) became the accepted global doctrine, rendering total war on the scale of
WWII improbable. Proxy warfare became a dinnertime discussion. Subversion and espionage are prevalent in daily international interactions and “plausible deniability” is the term of the time.
Thus, the CIA and FBI have expanded far beyond their initial capabilities, and actions in the
shadows have become the norm . These new methods have become the “civilized” approach
to conflict, clearly better than the “barbarities” of a nuclear holocaust. It is also here where the
power of words and ideas, and non-kinetic war, is finally seen in full force. Millions, or even
billions, witnessed this when the Soviet Union watched the collapse of the Iron Curtain, unable
to fulfill its goal of withstanding the power of “blue jeans and rock and roll.” . Democratic
nations have always had a “home advantage” in utilizing the voice of the public. Able to tout
their messages of individual freedoms and abundant resources, Western democracies have
consistently used their words and ideas as ammunition against more authoritative regimes.
Perhaps the proof of the efficacy of such tactics lies in the reactions they have elicited from
non-democratic powers. Restrictions, bans, and general censorship have long been the policy of countries such as China, Russia, and, much more drastically, North Korea. The age of the
internet has only reinvigorated their concerns. Unsurprisingly, Facebook and other social media
platforms face restrictions, if not outright bans, in these and similar countries worldwide
. However, it is these very ideals of free press and free speech that have left Democratic
nations vulnerable to powers attempting to control public thought. These nations have been
forced to go on the defensive as the protection of resources and individual freedoms no longer
hold the same persuasiveness they once did. The global economy has seen both the US and
China prosper . The most important change since the Cold War, however, has been the shift in how we communicate and share ideas. We seek to illustrate this change by recounting past shifts in the way that people have fought over minds and information, concluding with a new era and avenue of war.
Psychological Warfare (PsyOps)
In the United States, PsyOps specifically relates to the use of white, gray, and black products produced by various branches of the military and the CIA or its predecessors. White products are officially identifiable as being sourced from the US, gray products have an ambiguous source element, and black products are meant to seem as if they originate from a hostile source.
Operations include the likes of propaganda radio, providing insubordination manuals to the
militia, and even encouraging child soldiers to defect to avoid conflict .
In comparison to cognitive warfare, there are quite a few key differences. First, cognitive warfare deals mostly with gray products. White and black products are either too transparent or too risky to be reliable methods of affecting public opinion. Additionally, there is a certain element of deniability inherent to cognitive warfare that is lost in white products and endangered by black products. Moreover, PsyOps has rarely dealt with large sections of the public in the past. There is an emphasis on military or subversive activity in PsyOps that is not usually the goal of cognitive warfare tactics, which tend to target civilian social infrastructure and governments .
EW is defined by the use of the electromagnetic spectrum to attack the enemy, impede enemy attacks, or identify and scout for specific assets. In some ways, electronic warfare was the
precursor to cyber warfare. Its origins date back to the 1900s with the invention of early wireless communication. Infrared homing, radio communications, and the increasing use of wireless technologies make this an important logistic division inside the armed forces. However, this field deals heavily with instrumentation and tactical advantages. This does not deal with public opinion or even interact heavily with the civilian space outside of impeding household electricity and radio .
Cyber warfare is defined as the use of cyber attacks with the intention of causing harm to a
nation’s assets. Cyber warfare, and its military classification, is still highly debated .
Nevertheless, numerous NATO member states and other countries have invested in developing
cyber capabilities, both offensive and defensive . Some worry about defining such
actions as war because they “only” target computers. However, the global trend towards
digitization and the Internet of Things (IoT) has meant that more functions are controlled now by computers than many would imagine. Everything from construction equipment, to financial
institutions, to civilian infrastructure, and even to military installations now depend on a complex computer network . The loss of such computer assets can, and already has, cost massive damages not just in terms of time and data loss but in physical damage that can be measured in dollars and lives .
Cyber warfare’s relation to cognitive warfare is mostly that they share an avenue of operations.
There have been instances of computer viruses spreading themselves through social media by
targeting the friends and/or contacts of the afflicted individual. However, these instances are
better described as cyber crimes rather than targeted attempts of cyber warfare. Cognitive warfare utilizes social media networks in a completely different way. Instead of spreading malicious software, agents of cognitive warfare spread malevolent information. Utilizing similar tactics to those used in DoS attacks, namely botnets, cognitive warfare agents can spread an
overwhelming amount of false or misleading information through accounts that look and interaction a human fashion . However, this is only one tactic employed in cognitive warfare and is largely where the similarities with cyber warfare end.
Information warfare is the most related, and, thus, the most conflated, type of warfare to
cognitive warfare. However, there are key distinctions that make cognitive warfare unique
enough to address under its own jurisdiction. As former US Navy Commander Stuart Green
described it, “Information operations, the closest existing American doctrinal concept for
cognitive warfare, consists of five ‘corps capabilities’, or elements. These include electronic
warfare, computer network operations, PsyOps, military deception, and operational security.”
. Succinctly, information warfare works to control the flow of information.
The main distinction between information warfare and cognitive warfare is that the former does not draw a distinction between battlefield tactical information and information aimed toward the public. For example, information warfare deals with DDoS attacks and ghost armies while neither of these falls into the purview of cognitive warfare. Perhaps a sharper delineation is that information warfare seeks to control pure information in all forms and cognitive warfare seeks to control how individuals and populations react to presented information .
A recent definition, from December 2019, provided by Oliver Backes and Andrew Swab, of
Harvard’s Belfer Center defined cognitive warfare thusly: “Cognitive Warfare is a strategy that
focuses on altering how a target population thinks – and through that how it acts.” . Despite the intentional vagueness of this definition, it serves as a more-than-suitable framework for a further examination of cognitive warfare. Our own research and analysis of past, present, and potential future use cases of the term have allowed us to further segment cognitive warfare into two operational fields. We have also come up with a quick reference list to validate whether or not something falls in the realm of cognitive warfare.
To summarize, cognitive warfare is the weaponization of public opinion by an external entity, for the purpose of influencing public and/or governmental policy or for the purpose of destabilizing governmental actions and/or institutions.
Goals of Cognitive Warfare
Cognitive warfare, at its core, can be seen as having the same goal as any type of warfare. As
Carl von Clausewitz states, “War [is an] act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.”
Cognitive warfare, unlike traditional domains of war, does not primarily operate on a physical
plane. Therefore, it does not utilize a physical force in order to compel its enemies. However, it
could also be argued that the goal of cognitive warfare is unlike any other type of warfare. Rather than “compel our enemy to do our will,” the goal is get the enemy to destroy himself from within rendering him unable to resist, deter, or deflect our goals.
In either case, the goals of cognitive warfare are achieved through different methods than the
goals of conventional warfare. Cognitive warfare has two separate, but complementary, goals:
destabilization and influence. While both of these goals can be accomplished separately, to
successfully weaponize public opinion, they can also be jointly attained by using one as a means to the other. The targets of cognitive warfare attacks may range from whole populations to individual leaders in politics, the economy, religion, and academics. Further, the role of
lesser-known social leaders must not be overlooked. So-called connectors, mavens, and
salespeople can be instrumental in the application of cognitive warfare .
To better classify cognitive warfare attacks, Figure 1 presents a pair of axes by which events can
be characterized. In the following section, we will analyze each goal individually and describe
how they are intertwined, generating a new, more dangerous, more pervasive type of warfare.
Then, we will detail examples of cognitive warfare battles and skirmishes that have occurred or
have the potential to occur in the future. These campaigns will propel cognitive warfare to the
global stage. Action must be taken, opposition campaigns created, and defensive measures
implemented, to prevent the perpetrators’ success.
Please evaluate this article because it is your future. It is up to you if you see that we need a change?