In an interview with Taiwanese online media outlet The Reporter (報導者) early last month, former Cambridge Analytica business development director Brittany Kaiser revealed how the company had employed big data for precision-targeted campaign ads by delivering tailor-made messages to online users and thus influencing elections in many countries.
Judging from the trend toward the weaponization of information and data, competition between democratic countries over developments in this area will become unavoidable. Faced with a hyperconnectedness created by the most expansive, fastest and most influential information dissemination in human history, there is an urgent need to think about how to prevent information manipulation from the vantage point of cognitive warfare.
Cognitive warfare refers to the deployment of instantaneous, multi-platform social media and highly personalized “mass personal communication” — which has much higher credibility and disseminates information faster than traditional media — combined with the theory of reflexivity to impose perceived ideas on reality, which in turn change real-life circumstances, to affect the mental cognition of a targeted group, shape mainstream public opinion and ultimately obtain a comprehensive strategic advantage.
Precision attacks are then used to achieve the maximum effect at minimal cost and create the most favorable circumstances for a candidate.
In terms of cognitive psychology, human emotion is susceptible to influence and interference, as suggested by US psychologist Calvin Hall, who once said that most human behaviors can be attributed to emotions, which act as the motivational force and background.
Among all kinds of manipulation of emotion, inciting public anger and creating fear among groups have the most decisive effects on changing human behavior.
Applying the operational principles of cognitive warfare to political elections in at least 68 countries, Cambridge Analytica fomented public sentiment and infuriated or terrified people so that voters followed the manipulator’s directions and staged protests, voted for certain candidates or became silent.
The term “cognitive warfare” did not emerge until quite recently, but the concept has been around for a long time. Broadly speaking, it is a kind of psychological information warfare aimed at spreading rumors through continuous distribution and reiteration of political propaganda to weaken the enemy’s confidence or terrify a target audience by “informing,” “influencing” and “changing” their mind and actions.
In the past, when information technology was still underdeveloped, the only way to disseminate information was to keep bombarding a target audience without knowing the efficacy, and it was difficult to predict the outcome.
Now, with the help of the Internet and social media, big data analysis is capable of vividly presenting everything people say, read, see or purchase every day. People’s whereabouts, the time spent at a certain location and whom they met can be easily revealed.
This is tantamount to the creation of a new, lethal cognitive space where psychological information warfare can be fully deployed.
More alarming is that information manipulators can get a grasp of a user’s preferences by obtaining certain data, such as the number of viewers of a video clip, whether they clicked pause or watched the whole clip, whether they clicked on a link and whether they shared it with others.
If the result is unsatisfactory, manipulators keep modifying sound color and slogans in campaign advertisements, and continue the dissemination until the information begins to spread. The collection and compiling process shows that data can be utilized not only for targeting audiences and generating influence, but also places the target at the disposal of manipulators and allows them to achieve their goal and intentions.
From the perspective of cognitive warfare, information manipulators that want to manipulate anger and fear to interfere with an election must first divide the target group into categories. Since the same information is likely to cause a different response among different target groups, manipulators must find the soft spots before being able to launch an effective attack.
Using big data analysis, manipulators can target various categories with laser-sharp precision by delivering different information corresponding to each target’s soft spot and achieve maximum emotional manipulation in the hope of having the greatest possible effect on voting behavior.
In other words, all kinds of information manipulation must be based on a firm grasp of statistics.
US President Donald Trump serves as an example: While outsiders see Trump’s strategies as chaotic and think he lacks a filter, what he says and does is based on communication guidelines derived from careful data analysis.
Similar instances could be seen in the Jan. 11 elections, where certain candidates seemed to imitate Trump’s campaign strategy by making gender-discriminatory remarks that often bordered on obscenity, blasting mainstream media outlets and making promises but seldom delivering.
This behavior was just a facade, which, when analyzed from the perspective of cognitive warfare, was based on the theory of reflexivity.
The greater the opposition, the more consolidated their supporters became. The goal was to test different messages and topics of discussion to find the one that would most effectively enocourage supporters to go out and vote for them.
As the challenges posed by foreign information manipulation, infiltration and influence of Taiwan’s elections is likely to become more severe. The government should take precautionary measures as soon as possible, beginning with enacting laws and demanding that social media platforms shoulder normative responsibility.
Urgent attention should be paid to strengthening legislation, education and social information campaigns to equip the public with sufficient knowledge about, and immunity against, cognitive warfare.
Only if every citizen is better able to see through the intentions and schemes of information manipulators and the government refers to the laws and regulations in the US and the EU and seeks international cooperation to contain infiltration, social division and the manipulation of public opinion by external forces, will it be possible to effectively guarantee national security.
Yu Tsung-chi is a retired major general and former head of the Cultural and Psychological Operations Division of the Ministry of National Defense’s Political Warfare Bureau.
Translated by Chang Ho-ming
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