Cognitive Biases: The Unwitting Threats to National Security

Updated: Mar 26, 2020

An image from a now-deleted Facebook page of a Russian paid Ghanaian troll, which touted alleged police targeting of African Americans. (Photo by CNN)[1]


Within the last decade the world has witnessed authoritarian regimes increasingly use social media to advance their global interests. For example, Russia’s exploitation of ethnic Russians living in Ukraine to set conditions for their 2014 annexation of Crimea. Playing on existing biases and aspirations for an autonomous Crimea, they gained control of the disputed area. Russia’s annexation of Crimea is just one example of how a state can exploit biases to support its strategic interests.

The biggest threat to a state’s national security is a global competitor’s exploitation of their biases. Cognitive biases are evident within everyday lives, for example, sports, politics, and socioeconomic discriminations. Both large companies and adversaries use algorithms to track online search results that are influenced by our biases, those things that we hit ‘like’ or view. Additionally, adversaries leverage other tools like social media bots and trolls to mislead populations using these existing biases. Unfortunately, your average person isn’t aware of this digital intrusion and manipulation, which makes them unwitting participants for enemy exploitation.

Cognitive Biases

Cognitive biases impact our lives from the food we eat to the news we watch. According to a study by Donald Moynihan and Stephane Lavertu, “Cognitive biases are heuristics that shape individual preferences and decisions in a way that is at odds with means-end rationality.”[2] In short, you can say the majority of people let their emotions drive their decisions. For example, a die-hard New York Yankee fan will probably not side with a Boston Red Sox fan during a baseball debate. However, these emotionally driven biases and strong opinions make people vulnerable to misinformation.

Misinformation has become the tool of choice to exploit people’s biases through social media. Your average citizen will intentionally or unintentionally encounter misinformation, and potentially reshare if it supports their personal preferences. This resharing of information can gain traction and spread quickly among populations of shared biases. According to research done by the Observatory on Social Media at Indiana University, there are three types of biases that make social media vulnerable to misinformation.[3]

Bias in the Brain: Cognitive biases originate in the way the brain processes the information that every person encounters every day. The brain can deal with only a finite amount of information, and too many incoming stimuli can cause information overload. That in itself has serious implications for the quality of information on social media. We have found that steep competition for users’ limited attention means that some ideas go viral despite their low quality – even when people prefer to share high-quality content.[4]

Bias in Society: When people connect directly with their peers, the social biases that guide their selection of friends come to influence the information they see. Our analysis of the structure of these partisan communication networks found social networks are particularly efficient at disseminating information – accurate or not – when they are closely tied together and disconnected from other parts of society. The tendency to evaluate information more favorably if it comes from within their own social circles creates “echo chambers” that are ripe for manipulation, either consciously or unintentionally.[5]

Bias in the machine: The third group of biases arises directly from the algorithms used to determine what people see online. Both social media platforms and search engines employ them. These personalization technologies are designed to select only the most engaging and relevant content for each individual user. But in doing so, it may end up reinforcing the cognitive and social biases of users, thus making them even more vulnerable to manipulation. For instance, the detailed advertising tools built into many social media platforms let disinformation campaigners exploit confirmation bias by tailoring messages to people who are already inclined to believe them.[6]

The combination of these biases provides adversaries a means to exploit populations to reinforce their narratives and setting conditions for their strategic interests. Moreover, once these messages gain traction and go viral, it can overpower competing narratives, creating a false positive in the information environment. This could potentially increase support to an adversary's interests due to it being aligned with the population's biases, as seen during Russia's annexation of Crimea.

Unwitting Collaborators