Cognitive biases as a weapon of Russian information war

Talking points for the Second International Security Forum in Kharkiv «FIGHT FOR MINDS IN THE TIME OF HYBRID WARS»

Nataliya Zubar, Maidan Monitoring Information Center, Chair

Through communication channels and networks, the Soviet Union and later the Russian Federation managed to enforce the following artificial social norms:

  • Acceptability and romanticization of criminal behaviour
  • Human suffering as a norm and a virtue
  • Acceptability of domestic violence against women and kids
  • Acceptability of “Salvation lie” (it is ok to lie)
  • Acceptability of violence as a means of defending one’s own interests
  • Tolerance of ill-treatment of animals
  • Tolerance of ill-treatment of people with disabilities.

Since 2000, Russian propaganda has focused on the renewal of “traditional family values” or “Domostroy,” which continues to be written into Russian laws.  These artificial social norms are pervasive in the Russian-speaking world via soap operas and reality shows. This is described in detail in Peter Pomerantsev’s book, “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia.”

Devaluation of Life

“I lived in a country where we were taught since our childhood to die. 

We were taught the death. 

We were told that the human exists to give themselves, to burn, to sacrifice themselves.”

  • Svetlana Alekseevich,
    Belarussian writer. Nobel Lecture.
    December 7, 2015

Devaluation of Human Rights

“In some countries, there are attempts by law to assert the right of any choice of person, including the most sinful …

 We must protect Orthodoxy from the heresy of our time.”

Patriarch of Russian Orthodox Church Kirill, March 20, 2016

Biases in Information War

Cognitive biases are systematic patterns of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment, and are often studied in psychology and behavioral economics. Cognitive biases may sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality. The notion of cognitive biases was introduced by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. For deep understanding of the concept I recommend Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (2012), which is translated into Ukrainian by “Nash Format” publishing house.

Russian state propaganda machine is systematically using cognitive biases to promote these artificial social norms in Ukraine, in Europe and anywhere they could reach. 

Biases most used in information war are related to information overload, when too much information causes a problem in effectively understanding an issue or making decisions 

Information overload sucks, so we aggressively filter. Noise becomes signal.

We notice things that are already primed in memory or repeated often. This is the simple rule that our brains are more likely to notice things that are related to stuff that’s recently been loaded in memory.

Most important bias for the information war is Availability heuristic: the tendency to estimate what is more likely by what is more available in memory, which is biased toward vivid, unusual, or emotionally charged examples 

Availability is achieved via 

Firehouse of falsehood – a propaganda technique in which a large number of messages are broadcast rapidly, repetitively, and continuously over multiple channels. 

Definition by RAND Corporation, 2016

Instrumental biases for this  technique are:
Frequency bias: the illusion in which a word, a name or other thing that has recently come to one’s attention suddenly appears “everywhere” with improbable frequency 

Salience bias: The tendency to focus on items that are more prominent or emotionally striking and ignore those that are unremarkable, even though this difference is often irrelevant by objective standards. 

For example, when there’s only one member of a racial minority on a business team, other members use that individual’s performance to predict how any member of that racial group would perform.

Confirmation bias: the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions 

Negativity bias: psychological phenomenon by which humans have a greater recall of unpleasant memories compared with positive memories

Recency Illusion: The tendency to weigh the latest information more heavily than older data.

Halo effect: a cognitive bias that causes our impression of someone in one area to influence our opinion of that person in other areas. This bias can cause us to assume that a person is highly knowledgeable and has an interesting personality, simply because they are physically attractive.

False analogy: two objects (or events) are shown to be similar. Then it is argued that since one of the two objects has a certain property, so also the other object must have it 

Picture superiority effect: the notion that concepts that are learned by viewing pictures are more easily and frequently recalled than are concepts that are learned by viewing their written word form counterparts.

Debiasing is needed to counter the firehouse of falsehood.

Debiasing (or cognitive bias mitigation), is the process through which we reduce the influence that cognitive biases have on people, in order to enable them to think in a more rational manner.

Debiasing is performed via:

  • developing awareness of various cognitive biases, 
  • slowing down the reasoning process, 
  • creating favourable conditions for decision making.

Other debiasing ideas may exist, we should be looking for those, test these ideas and discuss the results.

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