Changing Hearts and Minds Doesn’t Work – Here’s What Does

The following article is an original work published by the Information Professionals Association. Opinions expressed by authors are their own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of or endorsement by the Information Professionals Association.

By Judy Philipson, Ph.D.

In the never-ending battle for thought space dominance, the United States is lagging. According to Congressional testimony by US defense intelligence and special operations experts in March of last year (117th Congress, 2021), China and Russia have far outpaced the United States in the race to shape public opinion.

If you want to understand why our adversaries dominate in Operations in the Information Environment (OIE), a recently released report by Graphika and the Stanford Internet Observatory that evaluated five years of pro-Western covert influence operations, may provide some insights. Based on an open-source investigation and analysis of data from Twitter and Meta, the study focused on practices for generating engagement and executing online influence operations, with a specific focus on the techniques, methods and technologies used.

The report paints a troubling picture of a process driven by bias and negligence. It shows a lack of awareness of the dynamics of online activity or operational tradecraft, completely ignores the worldview of their intended audience, and pays no attention to the decades of research on the science of influence.

Operators do little to hide their messages or appear authentic to their audience: narratives promoting U.S. and Western interests are overtly exposed, and stereotypical content and inappropriate jokes are used in an attempt to establish rapport. Moreover, the translations of U.S.-centric material are done carelessly, with no apparent attention to dialect, pragmatics, semantics, or syntax. A profession that requires strict attention to detail and nuance can’t succeed with a hit or miss strategy.

The U.S. Government has been unsuccessful in using fact-based messaging to encourage peace and stability abroad, and ineffective in countering harmful adversarial messaging aimed at polarizing our populace and destroying our democracy.

One possible problem? The Government’s over-reliance on a fundamentally-flawed concept that has existed for years in the community of practice charged with influencing foreign populations on behalf of the U.S. Government. It is the idea that the goal of influence operations is to change hearts and minds. Catchy slogans such as this are hard to let go of. The concept is completely antithetical to how behavior actually works.

If we are to ever gain and maintain a lead in OIE, influence practitioners need to shift to a model that is grounded in behavioral science. Influence operations needs to focus instead on changing the target’s perspectives and prioritiesnot their hearts and minds. The goal is not to make our adversaries think more like us. The goal is to encourage and maintain peace and stability throughout the world.

Influence practitioners know that how someone feels in a situation has an enormous impact on what they think and what they do. If you want real change to occur — one that does not require ongoing pressure – the message must make sense to the target audience, be easy to understand, and, most of all — feel right. In fact, the more the message is consistent with what the audience already knows (in terms of content, language and structure) the more reliable and important it is often perceived to be. When it comes to covert influence, a mountain of evidence won’t matter to the target if the decision doesn’t feel right.

However, obtaining valid, reliable and appropriately nuanced information to effectively influence is not only a challenge, but may be out of reach. However, lack of access to such information doesn’t take away from the fact that all influence — whether in an ethical (e.g., public health, marketing, political campaigning, negotiating, sales) or unethical context (e.g., trolling, hacking, terrorist recruiting, undermining other countries) relies upon understanding your audience’s perspectives, preferences, culture and environment. The more one communicates from the target’s point of view, the greater the chances of influence.

The recent Grand Jury indictment of Alexander Ionov, a Russian agent living in Florida and working on behalf of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), illustrates the criticality of this type of information to Russian efforts. According to the indictment, Russia is actively developing relationships and seeking to recruit U.S. political groups and entities to work as foreign agents, with the goal of sowing discord and distrust of U.S. political processes, promoting secessionist ideologies, and conspiracy theories.

The Russian strategy is concerning. Ionov, by his positioning in the United States, has a bird’s eye view into our system of government and easy access to what American’s think and feel about different issues. His residence in Florida allows time to observe, assess, and learn who would be most susceptible to a pitch. Knowing a target’s real concerns, and the words, memes, and metaphors that are used to communicate those concerns, provide critical information to establish rapport and with customized messaging that sound believable and feels right to the target.

Improving our game plan necessitates moving beyond a trial and error strategy to one that is methodical and measurable. Operational success depends upon moving towards a standardized and coordinated process that includes: 1) a clear operational objective, 2) a well-defined target audience, 3) extensive research about that audience’s worldview, and 4) knowledge of how to use social psychological influence tactics to channel the target’s attention, shape their perceptions, and evoke emotions consistent with the goals of the operation.

The U.S. Government’s lack of sophistication in this arena poses a significant vulnerability to U.S. national security interests. What is needed now is a three-pronged, standardized protocol for developing influence operations, testing out strategies for success and credentialing professionals.

First, a formal framework for planning, developing, and implementing offensive operations and defending against malign influence at home and abroad is should be adopted. Second, a Cognitive Security Proving Ground, or testbed, would be indispensible for practitioners to hone their craft, learn their trade, and improve their skills. without fear of compromise to national security. Lastly, a rigorous, scientifically-sound approach to training and professionalizing the field is essential to maintain capabilities and to standardize the process across the US. Government.


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Judy Philipson, Ph.D. is an Associate Research Scientist at the Applied Research Laboratory for Intelligence and Security (ARLIS), at the University of Maryland. She has supported the U.S. Government on a broad range of activities aimed at detecting and countering adversarial influence. She is a Senior Associate Fellow at Narrative Strategies, LLC, a member of the Security Policy Reform Council, Intelligence & National Security Alliance (INSA), and an Information Professionals Association member.  She holds a M.A. and Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Drexel University where she worked with forensic populations on issues relating to decision-making and risk assessment.