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Cognitive Warfare: Are We All Being Turned into Manchurian Candidates?

Warfare is no longer a purely military concept. In cognitive warfare, the human mind is the battlefield. Everyone, civilian or military, is a potential target.



Amidst the torrent of information and misinformation we are buffeted by every day, it is rare to learn something that really shakes up the way you perceive what is happening in the world. But that is exactly what happened to me recently when I came across the fascinating article "Cognitive Warfare: The 21st Century Game Changer." 

The article appeared in the October 2023 edition of The Three Swords, a magazine published by the Public Affairs Office at NATO's Joint Warfare Center (JWC). The author is Commander Cornelis van der Klaauw of the Royal Netherlands Navy. He is a subject matter expert for strategic communications and information operations at the JWC.

Russian and Chinese Cognitive Warfare

The author defines cognitive warfare as a "structured and well-considered approach to target the human cognition of individuals, groups, and societies in a way that affects their decision-making processes and ultimately their behavior."

Intelligence agencies in the West have issued clear warnings: Russia and China are seeking to destabilize Western democracies. They aim to destroy the current international system based on universal values and the rule of law to establish an alternative world order that advances their own national interests. 

Therefore, Russia and China are using various techniques, including interference in free elections, to create or amplify social disorder and distrust, and fracture social cohesion. Through this, they seek to turn citizens of free nations against one another. They do this by seeking to disrupt individual and group cognition to gain an advantage over their adversaries. Moreover, these actions are occurring continuously during what is nominally peacetime. And since they directly target the minds of civilians, that is non-combatants, such actions violate the Law of Armed Conflict.

Difference from Propaganda

You might well ask what is the difference between cognitive techniques and traditional propaganda and psychological warfare? After all, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and Mao Zedong all became experts in the use of propaganda and mind control techniques. Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels expressed their thinking succinctly in statements like: "If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it, and you will even come to believe it yourself." And: "Propaganda works best when those who are manipulated are confident they are acting on their own free will." 

An event commemorating the 130th anniversary of Mao Zedong's birth, December 25, 2023, Shaoshan, Hunan Province, China. (©Kyodo)

However, unlike psychological operations that seek to persuade the conscious mind, cognitive warfare aims at the subconscious mind. This exists below the conscious mind. It is centered in the amygdala, the part of the brain that is the major processing center for emotions, learning, and memories. This part of the brain is always at work, even when we are asleep. And counterintuitive as it might seem, the amygdala is also responsible for the bulk of decision-making. 

In fact, only five to ten percent of the decisions we make are rational decisions. The problem is that the subconscious is a patsy for biases, preconceptions, fallacies, and disinformation. 


Targeting the Subconscious

Cognitive attacks are designed to manipulate emotions. They take advantage of the susceptibility of the subconscious to being tricked. This takes place through hyper-personalized targeting, integrating and exploiting neuroscience, biotechnology, information, and cognitive techniques (NBIC). China and Russia, in particular, have been expending considerable resources on the development of NBIC techniques. 

"In cognitive warfare," Van der Klaauw notes, "the ultimate aim is to alter our perception of reality and deceive our brain in order to affect our decision-making. We are commonly unaware of such attacks before it is too late and they have already affected their targets."

Moscow seems to have found several "useful idiots" in the United States Congress willing to parrot their propaganda. Without providing any proof, these individuals even seek to portray Russia as a protector of Christianity against a Ukraine that is "persecuting Christians and killing priests." It is interesting to contemplate what kind of conversion experience former KGB officer Vladimir Putin had that turned him into a "Christian soldier marching off to war" with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cheering him on.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets presidential election campaign agents at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 20. (©Tass via Kyodo)

Such astonishing assertions stand in stark contrast to in-depth reports from Christian groups and reputable media outlets. The latter includes Time, Newsweek, Christianity Today, the BBC, The Hill, and The Financial Times, to name a few. All of these detail how Russia is destroying hundreds of churches and religious sites in Ukraine. It is crushing religious groups not controlled by the official Russian Orthodox Church. Evangelicals, in particular, have been targeted for torture and murder. 

Exploiting Emotion

The 1959 novel The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon tells the story of the son of a leading US political family. During his time as a POW during the Korean War, he is brainwashed and programmed by Soviet and Chinese intelligence officers to become an unwitting assassin.

In the present instance, the politicians in democracies who take the Moscow line may be more than just sadly misguided or lying for their own political purposes. They could well be victims of cognitive warfare themselves. 

Remember: cognitive attacks are not directed at our conscious mind but at our subconscious mind. They seek to exploit our emotions. The main arena has become social media and digital networks, which adversaries seek to use for neuro-profiling and targeting of individuals.

This apartment building was destroyed by a Russian missile attack on February 11, in Kharkov, eastern Ukraine (© Kyodo)

Social Media Echo Chamber

Online news and opinion websites and social media have become the primary sources of news and information for many people today. Social media is the preferred mode for cognitive attacks since the content can be designed to stir up emotions. 

Social media platforms also encourage addictive behavior. Add to that the fact that they are ideal for collecting personal information useful for profiling and data mining. You can see why they are so attractive to enemies of freedom and civil discourse. 

There is also the echo chamber effect. Users of social media have an undeniable tendency to self-select based on their politics, religion, sexual orientation, and economic background, as well as interests. That further encourages polarization and even radicalization. This, in turn, can sometimes lead to the creation of micro-societies dominated by group thinking or accepting without question what a leader says. 


As Commander Van der Klaauw notes, "Within them, people concentrate on a narrative that supports their beliefs and desires while ignoring information that is not aligned with their narratives."


Cognitive warfare is most effective when it targets micro-societies and individuals. Marginalized individuals who feel alienated and distrust the government and existing social institutions make perfect targets for manipulation. 

Is it any surprise then that the Russian government has created dozens of fake news sites peddling an anti-Ukraine narrative? In some cases, this narrative is tailored to align with the preexisting beliefs of a political group. A perfect example is how some prominent media pundits and politicians in the US have repeated verbatim conspiracy theories. These include claims that there are US-funded bioweapons labs in Ukraine and other disinformation planted by the Kremlin. 

Then there is the case of China. More than two thousand years ago, Sun Tzu wrote that the most skillful leader subdues the adversary without battle. 

According to researchers Tzu-Chieh Hung and Tzu-Wei Hung, the cognitive dimension is the only one that makes it possible to truly envisage a change in the perceptions and behaviors of a target population.

China is obsessed with amassing enormous amounts of data from foreign countries. At the same time, they attempt to keep foreigners from acquiring even seemingly innocuous information about China. Beijing has displayed a voracious appetite for the data of Americans, especially US government employees. Both Russia and China have regularly hacked US hospitals and healthcare providers. But in many cases, the Russians were looking for ransom money. China wants the data. Why?

According to Van der Klaauw, the CCP leadership has developed a database with profiles of more than two million prominent individuals worldwide. They would very much like to use this information to influence decision-making processes.

No Rules in Cognitive Warfare

Smart devices today collect various kinds of personal physiological information, including blood pressure, heart and breathing rates, and skin temperature. Knowing the physical condition of a target allows intelligence agencies to target the person when he or she is exhausted, hungry, stressed, or angry. 


Furthermore, China is one of the world leaders in the scientific development of NBIC operations. It is conducting human research and experiments "deemed unethical according to Western standards." That includes DNA research on Tibetans, Uyghurs, and other ethnic minorities, and even adding human brain genes to monkeys. This all forms part of its "three warfares" strategy, integrating people-centric, psychological, and legal approaches. 

A few days ago, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) announced a major revamp of its operational structure. It revealed the creation of a new Information Support Force a PLA spokesman described as a "brand-new strategic arm of the PLA and a key underpinning of coordinated development and application of the network information system." Some foreign commentators said that it is not entirely clear what the mission of the new force is. Perhaps they should have considered its cognitive war potential. 

Warfare is no longer a purely military concept. In fact, we are already at war and the human mind is the battlefield. Everyone, civilian or military, is a potential target. 

We should heed Van der Klaauw's warning before it is too late: "In the future, there will only be one rule of warfare: There are no rules."


Author: John Carroll

John Carroll is a Kyoto-based freelance writer and JAPAN Forward contributor. He is currently writing a book on the religious traditions and superstitions of Japan's ancient capital.