The Psychology of Election Hacking

Cyber Politics, Security & Privacy, Threats & Hacks

This is a guest post by Saara Jantunen, a researcher at the Finnish research Agency of the Finnish Defence Forces.

Election hacking is perhaps the most topical example of what the combination of hostile information-technological and information-psychological activities can mean in the modern information environment. It has government officials asking whether malicious information activities targeting elections could be the new normal.

When the news about the French election hacking broke, many recognized the timing was due to French legislation. The leaks happened just moments before the legally enforceable election silence started, making it impossible for the media to report on, and for the campaign staff to correct any falsehoods and disinformation.

But last-minute election hackings and strategically timed document leaks are more than just a media game. In fact, the leaks during the election campaigns both in the U.S and in France are textbook examples of how psychological operations can be applied to serve not only warfare, but whatever we call those illegal, malicious and democracy-threatening information influence activities. This includes not just hacking and leaks, but how this information is used in addition to fake news and other forms of illegitimate manipulation.

Psychological operations generally have two purposes: to change people’s behavior and make them react, or to have them not react. These reactions are largely based on emotions, which have always been at the core of all information-psychological influence.

The lazy brain
Attributes such as rational, analytical and objective are words that flatter most of us. Still, 98% of our cognitive processes are unconscious. What moves us politically has more to do with our unconscious understanding of good and bad; emotions, that is to say.

The brain is a lazy organ. That’s why it likes to automate as many of our cognitive processes as possible. When certain networks of neurons are activated time and time again, the synapses in these circuits become stronger and faster in delivering information from one neuron to another. The stronger and faster the synapses are, the faster our reactions and associations become. From the perspective of propaganda this is, of course, wonderful. This is exactly the mechanism that is exploited in both information warfare and political campaigning. Tireless repetition of simple slogans appeal to the public. Who can remember Hillary Clinton’s slogan? What about Trump’s?

Hijacking minds
Disinformation is often designed to create negative feelings. Typically the audience is dismayed with narratives and images that are threatening and cause fear. Narratives like this can actually activate the neurotransmitters of the norepinephrine circuit. This is the circuit for negative emotions such as stress, fear and anxiety. In other words, disinformation is designed to manipulate the audience’s brain chemistry in order to cause stress reactions.

People who experience stress tend to focus on their own negative emotions, and make decisions that they think may reduce their stress. When stress levels increase enough, the amygdalae, which have a primary role in emotional reactions such as fight-or-flight, start to dominate the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is responsible for impulse control, reasoning and problem solving. This is called amygdala hijacking, and it is exactly what psychological operations often aim at.

Clearly the objective of election hackings and leaks is to emotionally trigger people with negative emotions. The same applies to the politically motivated fake news disseminated before and during elections. Triggering the target audience immediately before the polling stations open is important. It increases the chances of having people make an emotional judgment rather than a rational one. Studies show that people who experience anxiety or fear of the future typically vote for the conservative candidates, even if they usually identify themselves as liberals. This, clearly, would have served both Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen. Their campaigns were focused on threats such as terrorism, while their opponents were targets of malicious disinformation. Their campaigns were supported by the aggressive and malignant disinformation and harassment activities ran by the networks of propaganda sites, bot networks and aggressive mobs of political supporters.

Fake news has real-life consequences
According to a study conducted at the University of Oxford, social media are used for political manipulation purposes all over the world, leaving civil society to find ways to protect itself from disinformation. We recognize the threat that hacking, disinformation and bot networks combined with human curation pose to democracy. But at the same time we should understand the real-life consequences of, for example, fake news.

Websites that produce and disseminate propaganda and fake news consciously and deliberately trigger their audience to take action. These sites have become platforms for harassment campaigns. In June 2017, a Florida woman was sentenced to five months in prison for threatening the father of one of the 20 children killed in the Sandy Hook school shooting. The woman was convinced that the shooting was a hoax — a claim popular among several fake news and conspiracy websites. The harassment of individuals perceived as ideological opponents has become a form of political self-expression. These opponents are not necessarily politicians, but average citizens, journalists and other members of civil society, just like those who engage in the harassment campaigns.

Be conscious of the unconscious
It is unlikely that governments are willing to take decisive action against disinformation. Governments are political entities and by condemning disinformation and mind games they would rid themselves of many of the effective resources they need for gaining political support. This means that the main responsibility for the pursuit of facts and truth falls to civil society – think tanks, fact checkers, and the media.

The most important thing is to be conscious of is the unconscious. It is our unconscious that disinformation usually targets. It is the unconscious that allows us to be triggered into reactions that hurt ourselves the most.

Saara Jantunen is a Doctor of Military Science. Her research and writings focus on information warfare, psychological operations, and strategic communication.

[Image by Johan Bichel Lindegaard | Flickr]

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