Thought Leaders Recommend New Approaches to Cognitive Resilience

Leading researchers offered recommendations for increasing cognitive resilience in the face of the weaponization of social media and information during a program October 28, 2021 hosted by the U.S. Department of Defense Strategic Multi-layer Assessment (SMA) program. SMA, a multidisciplinary, multi-agency portfolio of projects that studies and assesses challenging problems associated with planning and operations of DoD, military services, and government agencies, featured Dr. Nicholas Wright (University College London, Georgetown University) and Dr. Peter W. Singer (New America) during a talk on “Cognitive Defense Against Massive Information Threats—Our Near Futures.”

From a military perspective, cognitive resilience includes approaches for addressing the threats posed to the joint force by malicious actors (which includes not just military members but their families and senior civilian leaders), such as operational security (OPSEC) challenges, general and specific threats against service members families, and the “knucklehead effect” (leadership time wasted dealing with incidents and real or imagined scandals amplified by social media exposure).

Both speakers outlined similar approaches for building resilience. Singer focused on media literacy (give critical thinking skills and understanding of how algorithms affect us) + civics/citizenship (how you act and behave online) + cybersecurity (threat awareness). Singer discussed four core ideas to support his approach.

    1. Designate lead for key action (this is not a one-off or an extremism-only discussion; and it drives a long-term training need).
    2. Redesign current cyber awareness challenges to incorporate the social media threats/challenges/scenarios.
    3. Fund tools in this space to deal with the issue.
      1. Gamification
      2. Multi-modal (including comics and graphic novels as teaching tools)
    4. Support expansion into areas that will help national security (such as leveraging JROTC; Defense schools; Veteran’s community; and Family readiness groups).

Wright’s approach was similar but revolved around Detecting (building AI and organizations to counter intel at scale); Defending (give tools and training to defend data and shape the terrain); and bolstering Democratic capability (approaches that support democratic ideals and lessen the fear of being turned to nefarious means). In particular, he emphasized the growing threat from mass personalization of data. This allows for the targeting of individuals using aspects of them from their data, such as the way things work in retail industries and marketing. The Chinese in particular have a lot of experience with this, since they use it extensively in industry (ex. Alibaba). Once you have that sort of data, it becomes easy to operationalize and insert/inject data into the social media accounts (on a large scale), including utilizing the mixture of real and fake data.

Singer stressed that these approaches are broader than the military but that focusing on the military provides a way to jumpstart these efforts into broader society.