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Cognitive Attack: The Hacking of Americans' Minds

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I spent several years working as a website evaluator and security tester for major technology companies.

Do we no longer own our minds? Has the flow of false information from social media taken them over?

Do we no longer own our minds? Has the flow of false information from social media taken them over?

Are We All Brainwashed and Don’t Realize It?

Has the US suffered a massive "cognitive attack"? There are many security analysts who now believe it's highly likely that a hostile foreign power has directed a multi-pronged psi-ops operation at the US public with the aim of changing our perception of reality. The ultimate goal of this ongoing attack is to cause us to turn against one other, and cause us to lose faith in our democratic process. It's really not that far fetched an idea, because our own CIA has been utilizing similar measures against populations around the globe for years. How would we even know if this has happened? How could we tell the difference between legitimate political sentiments that arose from within our population and false or exaggerated ones which were implanted on our collective consciousness by techniques unfamiliar to us?

We can usually recognize and defend ourselves against the most obvious efforts to change our cognition. Each day we're bombarded by advertisements that overtly or subliminally tell us what the ideal female body is supposed to look like or what the whiteness of our teeth should be. Advertisers spent a whopping $120 billion dollars in 2020 trying to condition us into a certain way of thinking. Most of us can easily recognize the goal of advertising, which is to change our minds, but what about more subtle methods that may be employed to change our perception?

In some way or another, each or us has been indoctrinated with certain ideas, starting at birth, by our tribe, peer group, family, church or nation. Some of these notions are constructive and help organize a society around a common goal, while other ideas that are passed on to us may be more insidious. The methods used to "brainwash" a group may appear to us as time honored rituals and institutions, while others may even present themselves as humor, such as a "funny" joke about people who are different from us.

When we fail to recognize the more insidious ideas that we've been indoctrinated with, the consequences can often be horrific. The horrible lie of "blood libel" or the belief that Jewish people kidnap and murder non-Jewish people to use their blood in sacrifice, has been around since 1144. Back then the Jews of Norwich England were falsely accused of ritual murder after a young boy was found dead with stab wounds in the woods. This lie grew and was passed on through time, as part of brainwashing used to help keep a group that mainstream society saw as "the other" at arms length and worse. These kind of lies and brainwashing eventually helped form the mindset that led to the murder of more than 6 million innocent people, yet as horrible as they were, those false stories once spread very slowly, up until now.

Brainwashing at Warp Speed

In 1928 a member of the Jewish community in Massena, NY was falsely accused of kidnapping and killing a Christian girl as part of a "secret ritual". There were hate crimes in Massena as a result of this awful lie and the story eventually made it all the way to the West Coast, where similar accusations were levied against the Jewish community of San Francisco in 1929. Much of the reason that these stories were eventually spread so widely was that they were being used as propaganda by followers of Adolph Hitler to try to gain the sympathy of Americans for their policies against German Jews.

Back then it took several months for this lie to spread across the United States. Now similar lies, about almost anything whatsoever, can be spread across the globe and into the devices in our pockets within seconds. Many outside observers of the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar have noted that the most unspeakable atrocities began soon after the adoption of Facebook by a large percentage of population of Myanmar. Simple memes, or cartoon like drawings or altered photos with captions that dehumanized the Rohingya, spread around the country like wildfire, and ultimately led to the deaths of thousands of people.

There is now clear evidence that more than 9,000 Rohingya people have been killed and 18,000 women and girls have been systematically gang raped. This happened partly because of social media posts on Facebook. Just let that sink in for a minute. So far, Facebook has never acknowledged any role in the crisis and has done very little to stop similar misinformation campaigns in other parts of the world, the US included. Who won or lost an election cannot be compared to the deaths of thousands of people, but as we've seen in recent days, disinformation about issues that Americans could once come to consensus about can lead to death and destruction.

This is not a partisan issue. Propaganda in some form or another, is now, and always has been used by almost every political party in every country on earth. Most forms of propaganda are still considered free speech. What form it takes, whether it's as innocent as an Uncle Sam poster, or tweets suggesting armed rebellion, is up to us as a society to regulate. Yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater when there is none, is not considered free speech, since it may cause people to die. Is a leader saying things like "Fight like hell!" in a series of tweets to groups of armed people, in a country already on edge also considered free speech? These are questions we must begin to ask and answer before we lose our very democracy to social media driven hysteria.

My Own Experience Witnessing Disinformation Campaigns

Several years ago I began to do freelance work as a website rater for a large multi-national company. The purpose of my work was to determine if a website was worthy of a certain ranking, offered users any valuable content, determine how easy the site was to navigate, etc. Along the way, I took on other website analyzing work with a different firm, using that company's software program to try and find vulnerabilities in websites as well as issues that might prove to be a security treat to anyone visiting them.

It was mostly pretty boring work, yet I did begin to see some very interesting things begin to happen as I also analyzed these website's advertising content. At the time, I had no knowledge of companies like Cambridge Analytica or their theft of personal information of millions of Facebook users, or how they would eventually sell that information to the highest bidder and use it to help change the outcome of the 2016 presidential election through highly targeted advertising.

What I did notice on some of the sites that I analyzed, including online chat platforms and political sites, was a sudden, almost overnight explosion of "memetic" or "meme based" political ads targeting certain ethnic and political groups. An example of this might be a photo of a church, with chains across the door and text saying "Closed by Obama". Another ad might feature a wounded veteran in a wheelchair at a football game where black players were taking a knee in protest, with text saying something "I would stand for the anthem if I was still able". Each of these ads or memes was designed to evoke a strong emotional response in the viewer, but what was their real purpose? Who was promoting all of this inflammatory content that I was seeing?

I later learned that many of these ads and social media memes were generated by Russian "troll farms". In case you don't know what a troll is, it refers to online instigators and troublemakers who lurk on forums and social media purely for the purpose of spreading hate, disinformation or causing chaos. Trolls may be a part of a highly organized group, such as those sponsored by Russia's intelligence agency, the GRU, or just ordinary nut jobs acting on their own volition. Several recent documentaries, including "The Great Hack", and "The Social Dilemma" have shown how the GRU employs hundreds, if not thousands of computer hackers to create fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter and other social media, and then to leverage those accounts to change people's minds or brainwash them.

Altering the enemy's perception is an age old tactic in warfare. An inflatable "ghost army" tank used by the allies during WWII.

Altering the enemy's perception is an age old tactic in warfare. An inflatable "ghost army" tank used by the allies during WWII.

The Four Steps of Subversion

Sun Tzu, the Chinese general and author of 'The Art of War", once wrote that "all warfare is based on deception" and this old adage still holds true in modern times.

Yuri Bezmenov was a KGB agent in charge of "active measures" against the West in the form of changing our ideology and increasing acceptance of Marxist-Leninist beliefs. When the Soviet Union finally fell, and they essentially abandoned this political belief, the brainwashing methods developed by Bezenmov didn't disappear, they just sat in KGB files waiting to be repurposed for a new assault on Western democracies, especially the US.

Russia's motives this time were not to convert Americans to communism, but rather to slowly diminish our global power and erode our resolve to counter their new empire-building ambitions so that they could become a dominating world power. Bezenmov's four steps were first to demoralize a population, then destabilize it, followed by creating crisis, and then normalization of things which had before that point been deemed unacceptable.

It's my belief is that each one of these steps that Bezenmov espoused, has been deployed both subtly and not so subtly against United States over the past few years through intense, social media disinformation campaigns. Through social media many of us became convinced of the impending "moral collapse" of America, whether it was true or not. Many of us became convinced that we needed a strong leader with an iron fist to "put things right".

Some of us even became convinced that the most basic health measures recommended by doctors, such as social distancing and wearing a mask, were evil, communist or even anti-American. The effect of all this disinformation is that we've now seen more than half a million American deaths from Covid-19, most of which could have been prevented.

Like Millions of Little Bombs Dropped on America

There is now a mountain of evidence that the US was targeted by a massive cognitive warfare attack by agents acting on behalf of the Russian government. I saw some of this unfold in front of me, yet like many other Americans I didn't fully understand the changes in online activity that I was witnessing.

As my job as a website evaluator evolved, I began to see evidence of a coordinated, massive campaign of highly emotion-based advertising beginning to spread across dozens of the sites that I was analyzing for my employer. A URL could usually be found that, when followed far enough down the rabbit hole, would often run into a dead end in some former Soviet Bloc country such as Turkmenistan or Estonia. On my own social media, including Facebook and Twitter, I began to get more friend requests than usual. Rather than just hit "accept" I would visit the profiles of these accounts to try and determine if they were someone that I might know, or even an actual person.

Something was just "off" with so many of these accounts. Whether it was the spelling or non American sounding phrases, "Bob from Topeka" on Twitter, who loved fishing and guns, didn't seem quite right to me for some reason. What I found with most of them was a pattern of them not creating much original content but instead posting dozens of re-tweets, in the case of Twitter, or innocent looking inspirational memes and quotes, in the case of Facebook.

If you look long and hard enough down the timeline of these accounts, you'll often find a political post. It was often something fairly benign, but it was sometimes pretty awful stuff. I began to see that some posts had anti-Semitic and white-supremacy messages subtly hidden in patriotic, pro American posts. The pattern was often the same, once you friended the fake account, they would "like" one or two of your posts, (gaining trust,) then post something that their information told them you'd like, such as for or against something, (gaining more trust). After several dozen or more innocent posts, they'd then try to get people to cross whatever line that they wanted them to cross with something more controversial. Suddenly soccer moms and football dads were re-posting things that looked to be patriotic at first glance, but in fact contained subtle messages that were much more sinister, or contained links to websites where more disinformation was found.

I even began to see the effect of some of these ads in real life, as someone would bring up some fun "fact" such as "did you know Russian troops are fighting against ISIS with our boys?" Some troll farm stories were even picked up by mainstream media. In the summer of 2016, Russian GRU agents secretly planted a fake report claiming that Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich had been gunned down by a squad of assassins employed by Hillary Clinton to silence him. Without breaking stride, Sean Hannity of Fox News, picked up the story and ran with it as if it were gospel.

The onslaught continues, despite sites such as Twitter and Facebook removing fake accounts. In 2018, Twitter alone removed more than 10,000 fake accounts that were sending out automated tweets encouraging certain groups not to vote in the election.*

Demoralization Complete

If a sworn enemy of ours were able to kill half a million Americans and destroy our health care system without ever having set foot on American soil, and did it all simply by using several hundred computer geeks sitting at desks, would they do it? What if they could destroy our faith in our democracy and cause our citizens to attack our own capitol based on unfounded rumors? What if that enemy could even literally break apart our own families by causing impossible to bridge political rifts between them? You better believe they would do it.

Did they do it? Would thousands more Americans still be alive today if there had not been a program of disinformation and a politicization of something as simple as wearing a face mask? I personally believe this attack happened and is ongoing, and it didn't just come from Russia, Iran or China, it also came from a few clever folks right here in the good old USA.

The demoralization efforts are working. Nearly half of our country won't even believe our next president was legitimately elected, just as they were convinced our last one wasn't born an American citizen. Many now believe that we need to give up fighting the Coronavirus, just as our hospitals and first responders are overwhelmed, even to the point of having to ration care and turn away ambulances. One far right leader even went so far as to suggest to his his members that they refuse to wear masks during the election protests so that the event could become a "super-spreader event for freedom". We're now attacking ourselves, just like some kind of zombie movie, and it's because so many of us have been brainwashed.

Biggest Hack in History

Our smartest cyber security officials are telling us now that one of the biggest computer hacks in our history has been conducted over the past year. While we were occupied with fighting coronavirus, Russia it seems, was busy penetrating our most secure computer networks at the Department of Defense, Energy, Treasury and Justice. How deep they were able to go, and how much information was siphoned off during that year, nobody really knows. All most of these officials will say was that it was "severe" and "very concerning".

As bad as this attack was, it was still not the worst computer hack against America. The worst hacking event ever perpetrated against the United States was the one that has been working on each of our minds. Many of the little gray computers that sit up there in our skull cavities have indeed been hacked. Many different actors, from hostile nation states to political action groups have been using professional psy-ops techniques such as those pioneered by Bezmenov and his fellow KGB agents to brainwash all of us.

No one who is connected through technology, including myself, has been immune to these new rapid techniques of disinformation and brainwashing.

How Do We Fix This?

Social media companies like Twitter and Facebook earn billions of dollars each year by following a very simple formula and it is this: controversy = clicks = money. They will not solve the problem of online disinformation for us simply because there is no economic incentive for them to do so, unless of course enough of us begin to delete our accounts. If we don't delete them, we should at least examine carefully the information that we get from social media, and look closely at our "friends list" and weed out dubious sources. (Just this morning I found and deleted 15 fake accounts I followed on Twitter.) All that I had to do to locate them was quickly take a look at what they were posting. If all they did was re-tweet mindless content and then drop an occasional political post, I realized they were fake.

Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit and every other new emerging social media platform out there must do more to stop the spread of disinformation, including dangerous conspiracy theories. With emerging AI and deep-fake voice and video technologies, the problems that bad actors on these sites can cause (with fewer humans needed I might add,) could be even worse that we've seen. If they won't comply, then we must put them out of business.

Shutting down disinformation on social media isn't enough however. Just as the computer scientists in the Pentagon and elsewhere are now going over computer networks with a fine tooth comb to root out spyware, each of us, especially after the egregious and traitorous attack on our own capitol, needs to look deep inside our gray matter and root out any ideas that may have been placed there (and disguised as "commons sense"), by those who want to destroy our country.

Many of those ideas seem so "common sense" that they "must be true", and while not everything you hold as your core values is wrong, each of us, if we have been exposed to thoughts which were not our own through the internet and social media, may have to some extent been "hacked".

The Value of Critical Thinking

Ultimately to defend our country from hostile foreign and domestic forms of cognitive warfare we must teach critical thinking, which is "the analysis of facts to form a judgment".

In a DefenseNews article, Brian M. Pierce wrote that to protect ourselves from disinformation campaings we should first "increase cognitive resilience against malicious influence, which includes cultivation of critical thinking and media literacy through education, as well as development of tools that can provide real-time identification and defense for people and organizations encountering sophisticated influence efforts."

In order to combat the kind of misinformation campaigns that are now actively targeting Americans we must increase our efforts in teaching critical thinking skills in primary and secondary education. Without having a media savvy population, our nation remains highly vulnerable to cognitive warfare tactics emanating from any number of hostile entities. Whether their purpose is world domination or simply to gain more viewers, those entities will continue to use our vulnerabilities against us for profit and power, if each of us is not sufficiently prepared recognize their tactics and to fight back. In addition to teaching critical thinking, it's essential that we continually do a self check on our beliefs to prevent any one source from hijacking them.

Each of us carries with us our own moral compass that ultimately guides our actions. Just as can happen with an actual compass, with its sensitive little magnetic needle, a highly polarizing force can sometimes get too close to our own little "truth needles" and cause them to sway in the wrong direction. There's a good chance that our nation's collective cognition has indeed been hacked. It's our patriotic duty to each perform a little virus scan on our own minds, to find out what's real, and what may have been planted there to try and destroy our democracy from within.

Sources

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2021 Nolen Hart