Terms like national security or cybersecurity are commonplace today, but what about cognitive security? It is the security that, if societies lose, they will find themselves struggling to address some of the most disturbing crises of the twenty-first century, from pandemics to climate change.
With the spread of the Corona epidemic, there is something that has become so clear that it is impossible to overlook it, and that is that it is extremely difficult to reach a state of security cooperation and coordination in the behavior of an entire society, even in matters that are considered a life or death issue.
A closer look at the general response and different people’s attitudes regarding vaccines against the virus that causes the Corona epidemic, explains the above. For the world to overcome this virus, most people must agree to receive the vaccine, bearing in mind that only a few democratic governments would resort to making it mandatory.
However, there is still considerable hesitation about vaccines around the world. If the numbers of refusers to receive the vaccine are large enough, this means that there is a risk that one of the most promising ways to get rid of the epidemic will fail, as their refusal will affect everyone, even the people who got the vaccine.
This has been evident since the beginning of the epidemic, as public health officials and politicians have tried during different periods of the pandemic spread to persuade people to do certain things to protect themselves and their communities, from social distancing to wearing masks.
Many adhered to this, but others did not, and refused advice. The spread of false information about vaccines and wearing masks, the circulation of ineffective treatments and unfounded rumors about the origin of the Corona virus, made the possibility of coordinating public behavior in the face of the pandemic very difficult.
This unanimous and unanimous response to a major global crisis indicates an alarming and ominous trend in dealing with any other crises we may face in the twenty-first century, from future pandemics to climate change. In the post-truth era, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ensure that everyone has sufficient knowledge. In other words, even if the way to save the world is well known and clear, an environment in which misinformation and lack of credibility can prevent it from succeeding.
In a new report published by the Alan Turing Institute in the United Kingdom, my colleagues and I expressed our belief that the threat of this trend threatens global security itself. The terms national security and cybersecurity have become commonplace, but we believe that more attention should be paid to “knowledge security,” without which our societies will lose the ability to deal with the most severe risks that we will face in the future.
If security in our homes means our confidence that all our property is safe, and financial security is that our money is safe, and national security is to preserve the security of our country, then knowledge security is that our knowledge is safely preserved.
Consequently, cognitive security includes making sure that we really know what we think we know, that we are able to detect unsupported or untrue allegations, and that our information systems are able to counter “cognitive threats” such as fake news.
In our report, we present an examination of countermeasures and potential areas of research that can contribute to maintaining knowledge security in democratic societies. But in this article, let us look at four main trends whose spread has threatened cognitive security and exacerbated the problem, which made it difficult for societies to deal appropriately with severe challenges and crises:
1. Lack of attention and alertness
Long ago, particularly in the thirteenth century and long before printing presses were invented in Europe, scholars have complained about the “flood” of information they should be familiar with. In 1255, the Dominican father Vincent of Beauvais wrote of “too many books, too short time, and memory deficits.”
Today, thanks to the Internet, there is an enormous amount of information that is more difficult to verify than ever before, and information that is difficult to sort and distinguish between correct and wrong ones. Our already limited ability to pay attention has become weak and very expendable.
An abundance of information and a lack of consumer attention create a so-called “interest economy”, in which there is fierce competition between governments, journalists, stakeholders, and others to attract consumers and win their interest. Unfortunately, some of the most effective attention-grabbing strategies are those that address people’s feelings and beliefs. They are sources of information that are often contradictory in presenting the “facts”, and each has its own versions that serve its purposes.
2. Limited rationality
A particularly disturbing consequence of the “attention economy” is the formation of closed filter bubbles that provide filtered information, in which people are cognitively exposed to what is consistent with the beliefs they previously formed, and they act as a filter that prevents the entry of opposing views.
And when people are presented with a flood of opinions and information, they naturally prefer to pay attention to like-minded people from their own communities rather than strangers. Thanks to social media platforms, it is now easier than ever to form societies where uniform trends prevail, and so is joining them on the basis of shared beliefs and values.
The cognitive state resulting from the filter bubbles is called “bounded rationality”. If obtaining the correct information is the condition of good thinking and the basis for the ability to make the right decision, then the individual’s closure within the filter bubbles prevents him from accessing the required information, which will limit his ability to think good rational.
3. Litigants and Errors
Disseminating and accessing information today is easier than ever. But the downside to this is that this ease also applies to spreading false or misleading information, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
Actors (individuals, organizations, or states) who intentionally manipulate information to mislead or deceive recipients in order to direct them into false beliefs are called “adversaries”. These opponents launch “hostile attacks” with the aim of inciting people to take steps or positions based on misleading or false information. For example, a political campaign uses deepfakes to fabricate video clips incriminating other political candidates for manipulating election results.
On the other hand, entities or persons who spread false beliefs or lack evidence, either in good faith or incidentally without prior planning, are called “erroneous”. For example, a researcher in the field of vaccines against the Corona epidemic, who has concerns about their side effects, or distrust of medical authorities, may issue a comment in good faith during an interview, but it is somewhat disturbing, and this comment can be captured, focused on, and published. On social media, which may lead to a widespread campaign against vaccination.
4. Erosion of confidence
Humans have developed natural technologies that allow them to make decisions about how to trust others. For example, we are more likely to trust a person if many people believe them, and we are more willing to believe someone in our community, because that means that they share the same values and interests with us. We also use body language, tone of voice, and style of speech to judge the degree of honesty. They are not infallible strategies, but overall they have always been beneficial to people.
But modern information technologies can undermine those skills. For example, closed filter bubbles can make minority views more vocal and visible, and make them appear to prevail on a much larger scale than they actually are. While minority views must be allowed to be heard and present, a problem may arise when extremist and offensive views are presented as far more common than they actually are.
Cutting-edge technologies have also disrupted our subconscious mind’s ability to look for signs of sincerity or insincerity in sounds and body language. Fabricated letters or video clips modified using deepfakes eliminated those little, semi-secret signals that normally alert our subconscious mind from deceitful people.
What does all this mean?
For those willing to make the effort, adherence to a well-balanced and rich media “diet” is more available today than ever before. However, obtaining good information often takes time and good resources, two things that are not easy to find for most people.
Therefore, when it comes to facing complex challenges such as the spread of the Corona epidemic, which require timely decision-making and coordination of collective action on a large scale, it is important to remember that providing the right health advice and providing safe vaccines is not enough. People must also believe in the solutions offered, and trust those who offer them.
In our report, we explored some of the potential consequences, unless we act now. One of the worst-case scenarios is what we have called “cognitive chatter.” In the future, as it now appears, the ability of the general public to tell the difference between fact and fiction is completely missing. Although the information is readily available, people cannot determine if anything they see, read, or hear is truthful or not. Therefore, when humanity is affected by a new pandemic in the future, cooperation within society will be impossible. It’s a terrifying idea, but the spread of the Coronavirus has shown that it is closer to us than we thought.