Fight for Minds: NATO Mulls Adopting 'Cognitive Warfare' Tactic That Doesn't Need Weapons to Attack

© AFP 2022 / GEORGES GOBETNATO flag in the wind at the NATO headquarters in Brussels. (File)
NATO flag in the wind at the NATO headquarters in Brussels. (File) - Sputnik International, 1920, 17.10.2021
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Over the past few years, several nations in the West have accused Russia, Iran, and China of using social media to sow discord in their societies or influence elections, all while failing to present a shred of evidence to back that up. Now, they're apparently considering developing such a "weapon" themselves as well as a shield against it.
As if the degradation of global arms control agreements and growing tensions weren't enough to undermine international security and stability, NATO is apparently thinking about developing a new type of weapon – one that does not need bullets or missiles, but can theoretically disrupt perfectly stable societies. This "weapon", called "cognitive warfare", was described in an article prepared jointly by Johns Hopkins University and Imperial College London, and published on the website NATO Review as part of a series of articles on what the alliance's future technologies might look like.
According to the authors, cognitive warfare will allow an entire society to be effectively subdued without the use of force or coercion. It can be limited in time and range, for example, thwarting an enemy's defences in a certain region, or it could affect a nation for decades, the researchers said.
"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".
This is achieved through the use of cyber, information, psychological, and social engineering capabilities. The abundance of smartphones, social media, and digital news sources make this strategy relatively easy to carry out – all of these things can be used to sow doubt, to introduce conflicting narratives, to polarise public opinion, to radicalise groups, and in the end – to disrupt or fragment the affected societies, the researchers said.
"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".
If the phrase "fake news" comes to mind, you might need to do a double take – while the researchers admit that so-called "fake" stories can be used to amplify any message, they are not absolutely necessary to carry out cognitive warfare. A clever use of embedded emotions in transmitted messages or carefully leaked official documents will do the job just fine in flaming online passions.
The researchers noted that many factors present in modern societies make such cognitive warfare tactics possible (aside from an abundance of smart devices in our lives). They explain that people today have to react to news quickly, and as a result emotionally and irrationally, and rarely delve deep into the context of any news piece. Additionally, despite the spread of social media and overall increased connectivity, people tend to band together in groups and end up isolated in their "bubbles". Thanks to this, their reactions can be manipulated and the groups from these said "bubbles" can be pitted against each other.
A Latvian Army soldier walks with the NATO flag during the official welcoming ceremony of the NATO Canadian-led Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) combat battalion in Adazi, Latvia June 19, 2017 - Sputnik International, 1920, 05.10.2021
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Unfortunately for NATO, its member states are fine examples of such societies, making the alliance's members all too exposed to the very cognitive warfare tactics advertised in the researchers' article. The research points at the need to establish a system that would be capable of detecting and tracking any cognitive warfare campaigns waged against NATO's members.
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