Infiltrating Our Minds: The Future of Cognitive Warfare

If recent, credible reports are to be believed, Beijing has made it a primary mission to conquer the cognitive domain—not just at home, but across the world.
Infiltrating Our Minds: The Future of Cognitive Warfare
(Yurchanka Siarhei/Shutterstock)
John Mac Ghlionn
In the words of James Giordano, a biosecurity expert, “The brain is the battlefield of the future.”
And, as he tells me, no other world government is as determined to control the mind as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
If recent, credible reports are to be believed, Beijing has made it a primary mission to conquer the cognitive domain—not just at home, but also across the world. Society is, after all, nothing but a collection of minds. To control the mind is, in many ways, to control the overarching narrative.
According to the aforementioned Mr. Giordano, a professor of neurology and the director of the neuroethics program at Georgetown University Medical Center, cognitive warfare has two primary dimensions.
The first, he said, involves accessing the “neurological systems and mechanisms that have been identified as operative and functionally participatory in both individual and group cognitive processes.” In other words, accessing the parts of the brain that govern decision-making and behavioral patterns.
The second domain “engages more of an indirect or implicit approach that employs a variety of environmental approaches to affect individual and collective perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors,” according to Mr. Giordano, who’s also the director of the Institute for Biodefense Research in Washington.
When asked to elaborate, he suggested that this could involve the manipulation of “various signs and symbols, content, constructs and contexts of narrative, and even direct environmental and ecological manipulation.”
Take social media, for example, which is little more than a collection of symbols (emojis and so forth), content (videos, photos, and so forth), constructs (framed problems, solutions, and so forth), and “contexts of narrative” (subjective, objective, and so forth). Pro-China influence campaigns have already infiltrated social media platforms and various news websites, and Mr. Giordano said he expects this aggression to intensify, especially with a presidential election only 12 months away.
These two dimensions, he stressed, “are not mutually exclusive.” An effective attack, he said, involves the use of “both the first construct (neurocognitive engagement), as well as the second (social cultural cognitive engagement).”
Mr. Giordano warned Americans to brace themselves for a combination of advanced psyops and further manipulation of TikTok, a wildly popular app used by 150 million Americans.
“TikTok, along with more sophisticated forms of collective psychological intelligence, assessment, and engagement, are—and will increasingly be—used to leverage influence in narratives,” he said. 
Although the CCP’s methods of manipulating our minds are becoming more innovative in nature, Chinese theorists have, for many centuries, discussed the importance of cognitive warfare. Sun Tzu, arguably the greatest military strategist of all time, spoke in great detail about the need to conquer enemies’ minds from afar, without ever drawing blood.
More recently, in 2003, the People’s Liberation Army, the CCP’s principal military force, identified “three battles” that must be won. The first battle involves the shaping of public opinion. Beijing wants to influence both domestic and international debates and dictate the flow of very specific narratives (Taiwan, India, U.S. relations, and so forth). The second involves psychological warfare: the need to apply the lessons of Sun Tzu—not just at home, but also abroad. The third aspect involves the use of legal warfare (lawfare): signing treaties with ally nations and influencing critical organizations such as the United Nations, World Health Organization, NATO, and so forth.
In recent times, with rapid advances in technology, Beijing has dedicated more time to the second of the three battles: psychological warfare. That’s because, as stated at the beginning of this piece, the mind is now viewed as a vital battleground, perhaps the most vital of them all.
In 2020, obviously inspired by the work of Sun Tzu, a Chinese academic by the name of Guo Yunfei wrote a detailed piece describing the ways in which Beijing could conquer the enemy without ever having to fight. Targeting the brain, the scholar argued, should be considered the military’s prime objective. Coincidentally or not, Guo’s suggestion arrived at about the same time Beijing began focusing on “intelligentized” warfare, a rapidly evolving form of attack that blends more traditional forms of cognitive warfare with the emerging field of artificial intelligence (AI). As I write this, China, not the United States, is leading the AI race.
Mr. Giordano, one of the most qualified academics in the United States to comment on the future of warfare, said he views China as the biggest player in the battle for American minds. 
“At present,” he said, “China maintains considerable dedication to the neurocognitive sciences, with both explicit and implicit direction toward the disruptive uses of the science and technology, in a variety of ways that leverage Chinese capabilities and hegemony—economically, environmentally, as well as in intelligence and military scenarios that afford national power on the international stage.”
China’s continued “scientific and technological ascendancy” should concern policymakers in the United States and beyond, according to Mr. Giordano.
Of course, he’s right. The wars of tomorrow won’t be won by the countries with the biggest guns or the most expensive tanks; they'll be won by nations with the best tools to unlock, mold, and manipulate the human mind. The CCP plans on winning this war.
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
John Mac Ghlionn is a researcher and essayist. He covers psychology and social relations, and has a keen interest in social dysfunction and media manipulation. His work has been published by the New York Post, The Sydney Morning Herald, Newsweek, National Review, and The Spectator US, among others.
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