[ANALYSIS] Cognitive warfare: The tip of China’s gray zone spear

Sherwin E. Ona, Laiza Limpin

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[ANALYSIS] Cognitive warfare: The tip of China’s gray zone spear
Our adversary has developed a foreign malign influence playbook that combines cognitive warfare with disinformation and offensive cyber operations. The country needs to get ahead of this scheme by adopting a strategic and collective action paradigm.

The Chinese embassy’s claim that Filipino officials have agreed on a “new model” in Ayungin shoal is beginning to look like another disinformation master stroke. Amplified by trolls and pro-Beijing commentators, this illustrates Beijing’s constant attempt to seize the initiative by controlling the narrative and diverting public attention. As usual, Filipino officials were in the reactive-defensive mode. National Security Adviser Eduardo Año described it as false, malicious, and ludicrous while Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro alluded to the incident as part of Beijing’s “weapons of mass deception.”

Combined with the recent deep fake video of President Marcos Jr., these events have added a new dimension to the already precarious situation in our maritime zones. Moreover, it reveals a broader malign influence agenda that is aimed at undermining the Philippine position by weakening its institutions, discrediting its officials, and misleading its citizens. We believe that this is an attempt by Beijing to use cognitive warfare to complement its gray zone tactics of disinformation and offensive cyber operations.

Traditionally, cognitive warfare (CW) is a warfighting concept that attacks the enemy’s cognitive abilities to impair its decision-making capabilities and weaken its ability to resist. During peacetime, the aim of CW is to reshape a target population’s opinion and behavior. It is a favored tool for gray zone operations because of its strategic use of psychological/information warfare and digital technologies to create alternate narratives, weaken an adversary’s resolve, and fostering societal division without resorting to armed conflict.

Interestingly, CW is not a new concept. In fact, the 6th century BC philosopher Sun Tzu has underscored the importance of deception, sowing confusion, and espionage in war and politics. Another example is the use of the Trojan Horse by the Greeks to cloud the enemy’s perception which eventually led to Troy’s downfall. At present, militaries around the world have psychological and information warfare as part of their military doctrines.

A new version of cognitive warfare  

CW has significantly evolved due to the advancements in digital technologies, particularly in artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing. Thus, the modern CW goal of achieving “mind dominance” has made it a novel part of a malign actor’s toolkit. It is constantly searching for vulnerabilities by exploiting an adversary’s biases, information asymmetries, gaps in the decision-making processes, among others.

For instance, CW’s neuroscience side explores the functions of the human brain with the goal of degrading an adversary’s decision-making and warfighting abilities. On the other hand, its psychological side examines ways to influence human behavior by exploring different aspects of information processing and cognition.

In peacetime, malign actors can use CW to weaponize public opinion through disinformation and influence operations. Its ambiguity and attribution difficulties as well as its ability to exploit cognitive biases, makes CW a perfect weapon for actions below the threshold of armed conflict. In part, this is enabled by the confluence of AI, quantum computing, the neuro and data sciences combined with the pervasiveness of digital technologies.

For instance, the classic CW goal of deception can be rapidly achieved by creating deepfake videos and distributing them online. Another example is the use of hacking to illegally obtain personal information that can be used to determine vulnerabilities through social engineering. This is done by stealing transactional data to determine behavior patterns and preferences that can provide insights on the decision-making processes of a target audience.

It can also compromise privacy by revealing sensitive information that can be used for espionage purposes. Another ominous CW case is the Havana syndrome, where American diplomats and security officials were allegedly subjected to an invisible attack using energy or microwave weapons designed to impair their cognitive abilities.

What lies beneath: China’s cognitive domain operations

According to a 2021 study by the US-based RAND corporation, China spends US$10 billion annually on influence/information operations. Moreover, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) recently introduced the Information Support Force, which is responsible for combining information and psychological operations with CW. In terms of doctrine, the PLA has previously adopted the three-warfare concept, which emphasized the importance of integrating strategic psychological operations and overt-covert media activities. At present, it has developed a doctrine on cognitive domain warfare that focuses on weaponizing human cognition.

In general, Beijing believes that modern conflicts are waged in a networked (digitally interconnected) environment. It views AI as the preeminent tool that can dominate cyberspace and cites social media as the battleground for this modern warfare. By leveraging social media and AI, it aims to achieve the invisible manipulation and embedding of information to influence the target audience’s mental models and shape how they interpret and understand actions and events. A common technique for this is to inundate the internet with malicious content that is amplified by bots, fake accounts, and influencers using astroturfing and spamouflaging techniques.         

 A study by Doublethink Labs that examined the spread of false information before Taiwan’s 2024 national elections is one of the best examples of this phenomenon. Social media posts about corruption allegations against then DPP presidential candidate Lai Ching-te were disseminated. In addition, rumors were also circulated online about the importation from the US of tainted pork and eggs as well as malicious claims about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. These were all aimed at casting doubt on the American commitment to the defense of Taiwan and discrediting pro-democracy candidates.

Implications for the Philippines

The Philippines is especially vulnerable to CW due to the country’s low media and digital literacy as well as the widespread use of social media. Inadequate institutional frameworks to address disinformation and offensive cyber activities can also increase the country’s CW exposure. For these reasons, we believe that the Philippine government should explore the following alternatives:

  • Adopt a strategic communications approach – This is a deliberate effort to develop a strategy that will not only counter the disinformation activities in the West Philippine Sea but also look at the broader malign influence agenda. It also requires a deeper understanding of the Chinese Communist Party and its world view as well as its philosophy. In addition, this strategy can also include the mainstreaming of digital literacy programs aimed at integrating skills in critical thinking, fact checking, and how to safely use social media.
  • Strengthen cybersecurity and data privacy regimes – Strong data protection regimes against hacking and data theft will make it difficult for malign actors to profile individuals. Emphasis should be placed on enhancing data privacy and security practices. Furthermore, we argue that the country needs to adopt a credible cyber defense posture that protects the country’s critical sectors, information resources, organizational systems, and its citizens.
  • Transparency and inclusivity – The current strategy of “aggressive transparency” is highly commendable. Aside from being transparent, we argue that the Philippines needs to be proactive in its approach. For this purpose, we suggest that the government adopt a collective action paradigm that can leverage the expertise of the private sector, civil society organizations, and its international partners to address this new threat. We also propose that the government convene a special group of experts and officials that can examine CW, emerging technologies, and its malign influence implications.

In conclusion, we must realize that our adversary has developed a foreign malign influence playbook that combines CW with disinformation and offensive cyber operations. The country needs to get ahead of this scheme by adopting a strategic and collective action paradigm. Our leaders and planners must also understand our adversary’s long-term intent and philosophy. Finally, proactive programs must be developed to enable us to adequately respond to this threat. –

Sherwin Ona, Ph.D. is an associate professor of political science and development studies at De La Salle University. His current work focuses on disinformation, offensive cyber, and malign influence operations. Dr. Ona is a visiting fellow of the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taiwan.

Laiza Limpin, DIT is an associate professor of information technology at Mindanao State University – General Santos City. At present, she is completing her studies in public safety administration and is doing research on the use of social media in cognitive warfare.

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