Cognitive warfare: civilian brain is the new battlefield

‘The goal is to make everyone into a weapon’

De Andere Krant – translated by google
Datum: 28 juni 2022
Mens en Macht – People and Power
Elze van Hamelen

NATO has added to the traditional domains of warfare – land, sea, air, space and cyberspace – a new one: “the cognitive domain”. This is not just about conveying certain ideas or behaviors, as in traditional propaganda and psy-ops, but about adapting cognition – influencing the process by which we arrive at ideas, insights, beliefs, choices and behavior. The target is not primarily an enemy army, but the civilian. Including its own civilian, who is used as a weapon in battle.

“Cognitive warfare is one of the most discussed topics within NATO,” said researcher François du Cluzel during a panel discussion on October 5, 2021. In 2020, he wrote a landmark paper Cognitive Warfare for the NATO think tank Innovation Hub. Although cognitive warfare overlaps with informational warfare, classical propaganda and psychological operations, Du Cluzel points out that cognitive warfare goes much further. In an information war, people ‘just’ try to control the supply of information. Psychological operations involve influencing perceptions, beliefs and behavior. The goal of cognitive warfare is “to make everyone a weapon”, and “the goal is to attack not what individuals think, but how they think”. Du Cluzel: “It’s a war against our cognition – the way our brains process information and convert it into knowledge. It is aimed directly at the brain.” Cognitive warfare is about “hacking the individual”, allowing the brain to “be programmed”.

To achieve this influence, almost every conceivable domain of knowledge is pulled out: psychology, linguistics, neurobiology, logic, sociology, anthropology, behavioral sciences, “and more”. “Social engineering always starts with an understanding of the environment and the target, the goal is to understand the psychology of the target population,” writes Du Cluzel. The basis remains traditional propaganda and disinformation techniques, which are reinforced by current technology and advances in knowledge. “Behaviour can now be predicted and calculated to such an extent”, according to Du Cluzel, “that the AI-driven behavioral science behavioral economics should be classified as a science (hard science) rather than as an alpha (soft science)”

Since almost everyone is active on the internet and social media, individuals are no longer passive recipients of propaganda: with today’s technology they actively participate in its creation and dissemination. Knowledge of how to manipulate these processes “is easy to turn into a weapon”. Du Cluzel cites the Cambridge Analytica scandal as an example. Detailed individual psychological profiles of a large population were drawn up by means of voluntary personal data provided to Facebook. Normally, such information is used for personalized advertising, but in the case of Cambridge Analytica, this information was used to bombard doubting voters with personalized propaganda. Cognitive warfare “takes advantage of the weaknesses of the human brain”, recognizing the importance of the role of emotions in driving cognition. Cyberpsychology, which seeks to understand the interaction between humans, machines and AI (artificial intelligence), will be increasingly important in this regard.

Other promising technologies that can be used are neurosciences and technologies: NeuroS/T and NBIC (nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, cognitive science), “including developments in the field of genetic engineering”. NeuroS/T can be pharmacological agents, brain-machine links, but also psychologically disturbing information. By influencing the nervous system with knowledge or technology, changes in memory, learning ability, sleep cycles, self-control, mood, self-perception, decision-making, trust and empathy, and fitness and decisiveness can be brought about. Du Cluzel writes, “The potential of NeuroS/T to create insight and the capacity to influence individuals’ cognition, emotions and behavior is of particular interest to security and intelligence services, and military and war initiatives.”

Warfare on the cognitive processes of individuals represents a radical shift from traditional forms of warfare, which, at least in principle, seek to keep civilians out of harm’s way. In the cognitive war, the civilian is the target and his or her brain is the battlefield. It changes the nature of warfare, the players, the duration and how the war is won.

According to Du Cluzel, “cognitive warfare has universal reach, from the individual to states and multinational corporations.” A conflict is no longer won by occupying a territory, or by adjusting borders on a map, for “the experience of waging war teaches us that while war in the physical realm can weaken an enemy army, it does not lead to that all the aims of the war are achieved.” With cognitive war, the end goal shifts: “Whatever the nature and purpose of the war itself, it ultimately boils down to a clash between groups that want something different, and therefore victory means the ability to achieve desired behavior in a chosen audience. can impose”. In fact, it is about effecting an ideological conversion in the target population.

The enemy is not only the civilian in occupied or enemy territory – but also its own civilian, who, according to NATO estimates, are an easy target for cognitive operations by enemy parties. “People are the weak link. This must be recognized in order to protect NATO’s human capital.”

This ‘protection’ goes very far: “The aim of cognitive warfare is not just to harm the military, but societies. The way of waging war resembles a “shadow war”, and requires the involvement of the entire government in fighting it”. The war can therefore be waged with or without soldiers, and Du Cluzel continues: “Cognitive warfare is potentially endless, because for this type of conflict you cannot conclude a peace treaty, or sign a surrender”.