Cognitive vulnerabilities: Information Warfare ‘Then Vs. Now’


    Cognitive vulnerabilities: does disinformation matter more now?

    The 2016 U.S. elections created a tsunami of literature surrounding disinformation, from academic material to social media arguments. Cognitively, humans are not more susceptible to disinformation now than during the Cold War. humans maintain cognitive vulnerability to Information Warfare (IW) and the manipulation of perception.

    The stage on which IW is played is the difference between disinformation 50 years ago and now. Digital communications, not only social media, balance the playing field in influencing public opinion. The nature of employing information warfare almost certainly changed. From sporadic, high-intensity, and specific targeting, to continuous, low-intensity, and vague targeting. 

    Capabilities and resources are almost certainly reduced in importance when considering the use of information warfare. This increases the relevance of psychology when determining what direction public opinion will shift. Any state assuming that they will preserve an ideological status-quo due to rational thinking will likely fall prey to disinformation operations due to a natural cognitive vulnerability.

    Is information warfare disinformation?

    Active measures, political warfare, and disinformation are synonyms to describe what academics and practitioners now refer to as information warfare. A fixed definition does not exist although cognitive vulnerabilities highly likely drive the concept. Information warfare is the weaponization of information to obtain a competitive advantage. Information warfare adopted the name disinformation in the 1960s by the KGB and Stasi, particularly in East Germany.

    While current practices are associated with the cyber-environment and digital operations, historical practices occurred through leaks, news outlets, radio broadcasts, or publications. The history of disinformation allows information warfare to adopt any shape or method. This makes the content of information warfare itself insignificant compared to its implementation and methodology.

    Objectives and characteristics

    The key to disinformation is to reduce objectivity using cognitive vulnerabilities as a foundation. Manipulating perception is therefore a highly likely driver of information warfare. A decrease in rationality and objective thinking provides opportunities for actors to increase support or seed doubt in ideologies and movements deemed to be a threat.

    Anonymity drives information warfare as much as public exposure does. While the authorship of an operation is hidden to maintain an effect, the publication and distribution of disinformation material need to be enlarged to achieve the desired outcome. In addition, any accusation of disinformation may likely result in an increase of support to the created material. Cognitive vulnerabilities push the perception of objectivity while it undermines a rational capability of analysis for the target population.

    A reduction in objectivity, protected by anonymity, pushes information to be processed and decisions to be made in a subjective manner. The overuse of emotions instead of reasoning does not convince or provide a competitive advantage. Instead, cognitive vulnerabilities provide opportunities for radical ideas which oppose the status quo to be accepted and openly supported. While easier to counter during the Cold War, the current capability for individual targeting increases the difficulty of counter-measures by states.

    Present – Cold War Comparison

    ‘The Penkovsky Papers’ and ‘Who’s Who in the CIA’

    In the 1960s, GRU double-agent Oleg Penkovsky provided US intelligence with classified material, including the potential location of Russian missiles on Cuban soil. The USSR arrested and executed Penkovsky in 1964. The CIA published a series called the Penkovsky Papers, a half-accurate biographical narrative of Penkovsky’s life as a GRU intelligence officer with a negative undertone against the USSR. As a response, the KGB published through an East German writer the book ‘Who’s Who in the CIA’, detailing semi-accurate biographical information of US intelligence officers and organisations.

    Both disinformation operations targeted specific communities and ideas using particular created materials. Both operations are intended to disrupt capabilities and humiliate a state. It is likely that expected consequences of the operations were to be observed in the short term, depending more on the value of factual information provided than cognitive vulnerabilities. The stage operated in permitted the forgery but not the almost-free distribution within a rival state.

    Information warfare
    Cognitive vulnerabilities: Russia’s Internet Research Agency

    2016 US and 2017 Spanish interference

    In 2016, Russia interfered during the US election campaign by feeding false information regarding democratic candidates and promoting republican nominations. In 2017, Russia’s ‘troll factory’ contributed to the polarisation of Catalonian communities after the 1st of October referendum for independence. Both operations relied more heavily on cognitive vulnerabilities than Cold War attempts where content increased significantly.

    The 2016 US electoral interference or the 2017 Catalonian interference relied on long-term effects difficult to measure. The use of social media ‘bots’ and the digitalisation of information platforms provided an almost equal capability for states to influence a population online. Reducing objectivity, individuals relied on subjective emotions and irrational decision-making to maintain insulation from foreign interference.

    Cognitive vulnerabilities and Counter-measures

    The difficulty of measurement is highly likely intentional. While it prevents detailed expectations to be drawn, a vague and generalised disinformation campaign avoids rival states to identify threats. Even when identified, the nature of disinformation practices in social media likely pushes states to engage in similar counter-practices which likely continue to achieve the intended effect by the perpetrator.

    Iñigo Camilleri De Castanedo
    Iñigo Camilleri De Castanedo
    Iñigo is a graduate in psychology specialised in decision-making. He is currently finishing a postgraduate in Politics and History, with particular interests focused on intelligence, non-state actors and information warfare.

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