The Alliance faces a range of challenges in emerging domains of conflict. These domains can arise from the introduction of new and disruptive technologies. The domains of space and cyber, for example, came out of developments in rocket, satellite, computing, telecommunications, and internetworking technologies. The increasingly widespread use of social media, social networking, social messaging, and mobile device technologies is now enabling a new domain: cognitive warfare.

In cognitive warfare, the human mind becomes the battlefield. The aim is to change not only what people think, but how they think and act. Waged successfully, it shapes and influences individual and group beliefs and behaviours to favour an aggressor’s tactical or strategic objectives. In its extreme form, it has the potential to fracture and fragment an entire society, so that it no longer has the collective will to resist an adversary’s intentions. An opponent could conceivably subdue a society without resorting to outright force or coercion.

The aims of cognitive warfare can be limited, with short time horizons. Or they can be strategic, with campaigns launched over the course of decades. A single campaign could focus on the limited aim of preventing a military manoeuver from taking place as planned, or to force the alteration of a specific public policy. Several successive campaigns could be launched with the long-term objective of disrupting entire societies or alliances, by seeding doubts about governance, subverting democratic processes, triggering civil disturbances, or instigating separatist movements.

Combined arms

In the last century, the innovative integration of mobile infantry, armour, and air resulted in a new and initially irresistible kind of manoeuver warfare. Today, cognitive warfare integrates cyber, information, psychological, and social engineering capabilities to achieve its ends. It takes advantage of the internet and social media to target influential individuals, specific groups, and large numbers of citizens selectively and serially in a society.

It seeks to sow doubt, to introduce conflicting narratives, to polarise opinion, to radicalise groups, and to motivate them to acts that can disrupt or fragment an otherwise cohesive society. And the widespread use of social media and smart device technologies in Alliance member countries may make them particularly vulnerable to this kind of attack.

The Cognitive Domain is a new space of competition, beyond the land, maritime, air, cybernetic and spatial domains. © NATO Innovation Hub

The Cognitive Domain is a new space of competition, beyond the land, maritime, air, cybernetic and spatial domains.
© NATO Innovation Hub

Fake news not required

It is useful to note that false information or fake news are not required to achieve the aims of cognitive warfare. An embarrassing government document, hacked from a public official’s email account, anonymously leaked into a social media sharing site, or dribbled out selectively to opposition groups in a social network, is sufficient to cause dissension.

A social messaging campaign that inflames the passions of online influencers can cause controversies to go viral. Social media groups may be motivated to organise demonstrations and to take to the street. Official denials or ambiguous public responses in these circumstances can add to confusion and doubt or to entrench conflicting narratives among segments of the populace.

While fake social media accounts and automated messaging “bots” can augment this dynamic, they are not required. (A recent MIT study found that the emotions of suprise and disgust alone make messages go viral – and regular users, not bots, rapidly re-send them.)

Our clever devices

A paper copy of your favorite newspaper does not know what news items you prefer to read. But your tablet computer does. The advertisement you saw in the paper does not know that you went to the store to buy what was advertised; your smartphone does. The editorial you read does not know that you enthusiastically shared it with some of your closest friends. Your social network system does.

Our social media applications track what we like and believe; our smartphones track where we go and who we spend time with; our social networks track who we associate with and whom we exclude. And our search and e-commerce platforms use these tracking data to turn our preferences and beliefs into action – by offering stimuli to encourage us to buy things we might not otherwise have purchased.

Thus far, consumer societies have seen and accepted the benefits. The tablet computer serves us news stories that it knows we will like, because it wants to keep us engaged. Advertisements are displayed that conform to our tastes, based on our previous purchases. Coupons appear on our smartphone to encourage us to stop at the store that, by some apparent coincidence, is on our current route already. Social networks present opinions that we heartily agree with. The friends in our social network circles share these opinions too, as those who do not are quietly “un-friended” or leave on their own.

In short, we increasingly find ourselves in comfortable bubbles, where distasteful or disturbing news items, opinions, offerings, and persons are rapidly excluded – if they appear at all. The danger is that the society at large may fragment into many such bubbles, each blissfully separate from the others. And, as they drift apart, each is more likely to be disturbed or shocked whenever they come into contact.

The regular bustle and commerce of the public square, the open debate in a public forum, the sense of a common res publica (public affairs) of a pluralistic society – these moderating influences may become weakened and attenuated, and our sensibilities more easily disturbed. What once was a vibrant open society becomes instead a collection of multiple closed micro-societies cohabiting the same territory, subject to fracture and disarray.

Our weakened minds

Our cognitive abilities may also be weakened by social media and smart devices. Social media use can enhance the cognitive biases and innate decision errors described in the Nobel-prize winning behaviourist Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

News feeds and search engines that serve results which align with our preferences increase confirmation bias, whereby we interpret new information to confirm our preconceived beliefs. Social messaging apps rapidly update users with new information, inducing recency bias, whereby we overweight the importance of recent events over those of the past. Social networking sites induce social proofing, wherein we mimic and affirm others’ actions and beliefs to fit in with our social groups, which become echo chambers of conformism and groupthink.

The rapid pace of messaging and news releases, and the perceived need to quickly react to them, encourages “thinking fast” (reflexively and emotionally) as opposed to “thinking slow” (rationally and judiciously). Even established and reputable news outlets now post emotional headlines to encourage viral diffusion of their news articles.

People spend less time reading their content, even as they increase the frequency in sharing them. Social messaging systems are optimised to distribute short snippets that often omit important context and nuance. This can facilitate the spread of both intentionally and unintentionally misinterpreted information or slanted narratives. The brevity of social media posts, in combination with striking visual images, may prevent readers from understanding others’ motives and values.

Cognitive warfare integrates cyber, information, psychological, and social engineering capabilities to achieve its ends. © Root Info Solutions

Cognitive warfare integrates cyber, information, psychological, and social engineering capabilities to achieve its ends.
© Root Info Solutions

The need for awareness

The advantage in cognitive warfare goes to him who moves first and chooses the time, place, and means of the offensive. Cognitive warfare can be waged using a variety of vectors and media. The openness of social media platforms allows adversaries easily to target individuals, selected groups, and the public via social messaging, social media influencing, selective release of documents, video sharing, etc. Cyber capabilities permit the use of spearfishing, hacking, and tracking of individuals and social networks.

A proper defence requires at the very least an awareness that a cognitive warfare campaign is underway. It requires the ability to observe and orient before decision-makers can decide to act. Technology solutions can provide the means to answer some key questions: Is there a campaign going on? Where did it originate? Who is waging it? What might be its aims? Our research indicates that there are patterns of such campaigns that repeat and can be classified. They may even provide “signatures” unique to specific actors that can help to identify them.

A particularly useful technology solution may be a cognitive warfare monitoring and alert system. Such a system could help to identify cognitive warfare campaigns as they arise, and to track them as they progress. It could include a dashboard that integrates data from a wide range of social media, broadcast media, social messaging, and social networking sites. This would display geographic and social network maps that show the development of suspected campaigns over time.

By identifying the locations, both geographic and virtual, in which social media posts, messages, and news articles originate, the topics under discussion, sentiment and linguistic identifiers, pacing of releases, and other factors, a dashboard could reveal connections and repeating patterns. Links between social media accounts (for example, shares, comments, interactions) and their timing could be observed. The use of machine learning and pattern recognition algorithms could help quickly to identify and classify emerging campaigns without the need for human intervention.

Such a system would allow real-time monitoring and provide timely alerts to NATO and Alliance decision-makers, helping them to formulate appropriate responses to campaigns as they emerge and evolve.

Considerations on resilience

Since the early days of the Alliance, NATO has played an essential role in promoting and enhancing civil preparedness among its member states. Article 3 of the NATO founding treaty establishes the principle of resilience, which requires all Alliance member states to “maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.” This includes supporting the continuity of government, and the provision of essential services, including resilient civil communications systems.

Some key considerations for NATO at this time are how best to take the lead in defining cognitive attacks, how to help Alliance members maintain awareness, and how to support more robust civil communications infrastructures and public education frameworks in order to enhance the capacity to resist and to respond.

This is the fourth article of a mini-series on innovation, which focuses on technologies Allies are looking to adopt and the opportunities they will bring to the defence and security of the NATO Alliance. Previous articles: