Cognitive Biases and Info Ops

Cognitive Biases and Info Ops

We live in a world increasingly defined by fakery, almost all of it in the digital space.

There are reasons for it. People are gullible; we all, almost to the last person, go with our predispositions; perceptions, as multiple psychological studies have noted over decades, are quick to form but resistant to change; not many of us have the time or the capacity to forensically examine what we encounter on the Internet; the web creates a cascading effect, which allows fakery to snowball; impressions stay even after something has been debunked; fake identities, organisations, publications are easy to create and even when they are found out, the actors can create new ones; the dissemination and spread is real-time and at lightning pace et cetera etcetera.

In other words, every time we log in, we enter a veritable minefield. Fake operations are also becoming sophisticated, making it even more difficult for those who do not have the tools to sift the grain from the chaff.

Perception management is not new, of course. Neither is what we today call information war or operations. But digital space has given information dominance and manipulation a new and far more sinister dimension.

As always it relies on how humans structure the world. In his 2011 book, Thinking Fast and Slow, which doesn’t make for easy reading at all, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman looked into cognitive biases. His main thesis is about the dichotomy between two modes of thinking, fast (system 1) and slow (system 2). The fast is instinctive, emotional and informed by our cognitive biases as well as the requirement, mostly, to immediately structure the world around us. For many situations, thinking fast is useful. But because it is not deliberative and logical which informs the slow, system 2 analysis, for the most part humans remain locked in the heuristic mode of thinking. System 2 analysis requires one to train oneself to overcome one’s immediate responses and biases. That’s not easy. Allied with this is the finding, based on years of research, that humans have too much (and undue) confidence in human judgement.

This is a very sketchy summation of a very complex work. But the point is that given our tendency to work in and through heuristics, information and with it perception manipulation become easy. The operator(s) know exactly what buttons to push and what slant to add to fakery.

In 1917, famous American journalist and critic, H L Mencken, wrote a piece on the history of the bathtub under the title A Forgotten Anniversary. It was a light-hearted prank. But the hoax got such traction that Mencken had to pen a piece to debunk it. Even so, the hoax has survived while the article debunking it has all but vanished from memory.

Australian journalist, Phillip Knightley, wrote a book The First Casualty, describing how truth is the first casualty in war and how war correspondents act as myth-makers. He begins with the Crimean campaign and traverses the landscape down to the first Iraq War. It is a fascinating read.

And of course there’s the brilliant satire of Fleet Street by Evelyn Waugh in his Scoop, how information is dominated and manipulated through newspaper reports.

That was then. Now, in the digital world, fakery, slants and manipulation are reaching their acme.

Take the Indian Chronicles, the name given to a 15-year-long information operation by India against Pakistan. The independent, non-profit organisation EU DisinfoLab, which unearthed the operation first in 2019 and then went for a deeper dive into it recently was astounded by the scale and scope of the operation. This is what they said in the foreword to the report:

“Members of our team all share a common trait: an eye for the fake and a drive to uncover it. But never before in our investigations have we been so astonished at the multiplication of layers of fake. Indian Chronicles resurrected dead media, dead think-tanks and NGOs. It even resurrected dead people. The actors behind this operation hijacked the names of others and tried to impersonate regular media and press agencies such as the EU Observer, The Economist and Voice of America.

“They used the letterhead of the European Parliament; registered websites under avatars with fake phone numbers; and provided fake addresses to the United Nations. Indian Chronicles also organised supposedly multi-stakeholder events where – in essence – everyone speaking was tied to them. They misappropriated the picture of a former UK Government Minister and BBC Director on Facebook, registered the names of deceased persons to attend events five years after their death, and invented dozens of journalist identities. They used layers of fake media that would quote and republish one another…Ironically, this level of fakery may be the very reason why the operation could last for so long: how could anyone imagine that this is even possible?”

This was and remains a big, big story which our media (barring good reports in Dawn by tech-journalist Ramsha Jahangir) underreported and under-analysed. There are also questions about why our intel agencies who don’t tire of talking about the 5th-Gen War couldn’t identify this vast and very sophisticated operation. There are also questions about how and why our media do not have the capacity to go after this story and give it the extensive and intensive treatment it deserves.

As for India, it is trying to manage perceptions by flipping it: i.e., declaring the report as a Pakistani info op against India. In other words accusing EU DisinfoLab of being a Pakistani proxy.

Corollary: it is not enough for the state and its 5th-Gen warriors to use half-witted trolls to hound decent people. Their job is and should be to counter such ops. If we are really concerned about info ops and perception management, as we should be, then we need to increase our capacity at all levels for conducting and countering such operations.

Let me give another example. There’s a recent Twitter thread by a dubious character who calls himself Noor Dahri and claims to be a Pakistani. He is plugged in, by his own admission, with Israeli intelligence. He tweeted the thread on December 15, beginning with: “It was a morning of the last week of Nov 20 at around 8am, a British Airways flight BA0165 flew from London Heathrow airport to Tel Aviv. The person who booked a business class, travelled from Pak.”

He then goes on to talk about this person’s meetings with Israeli state functionaries, including the Mossad chief, Yossi Cohen. The thrust of the thread is that Pakistan being isolated from Saudi Arabia and the UAE has no place to go but to take the decision to recognise Israel. Also, that the person who flew to Israel was a close confidant of Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan. ( The entire thread can be seen at )

There is also a YouTube link to this person’s speech in Israel. System 1 analysis does not enable us to identify the thrust of his disinformation op. But if one analyses the information he is putting out and the conclusions he is drawing from that, it becomes easier to see how he is garnishing the secret visit bit with that information and to what end. One also has to see this in relation to info tidbits that are being put out to see which state actors are involved in it.

To his credit, the overall impact of Dahri’s (most likely a fake name) disinformation aside, he is wrapping it in some facts, the classic, sophisticated way of managing perceptions: the role of Saudi Arabia (which is pressuring Pakistan to reach out to Israel so Riyadh can have the space to follow suit), the withdrawal of oil credit facility, the UAE visa ban, the visit of the Indian army chief to Riyadh and the UAE etc.

This story is also put out by Israel Hayom, a newspaper which after its inception in 2007, was “nicknamed Bibiton (a portmanteau of Bibi, Benjamin Netanyahu’s nickname, and ‘iton,’ the Hebrew word for newspaper).”

One investigative account of the newspaper (by Refael Afriat) says: “Over the ensuing 12 years, the editors developed several tools for promoting the prime minister: when Netanyahu wants to send a message, the newspaper’s staff is put to the task of communicating it for him; when Netanyahu wants to attack a political rival, the politician is attacked on the pages of the newspaper; and when Netanyahu is in trouble —  for example, when the news cycle is saturated with reports about investigations into allegations of his criminal corruption, or about a scandal involving his family — Israel Hayom knows how to minimise the embarrassment and channel the discourse in other, more comfortable, directions.”

The newspaper is owned by Sheldon Adelson, a US casino billionaire. According to Israeli media reports, Adelson continues to finance the paper at a significant loss and is not only very close to outgoing US President Donald Trump (and the GOP), but “is known in Israel as Netanyahu’s patron.”

The Israel Hayom story has also begun circulating in Pakistan’s social media. Lesson: be careful, be very careful of info ops.

John F Kennedy, the US president, once said, “One should never fear to negotiate but one should never negotiate out of fear.” There’s nothing permanent in interstate relations. But as I have noted before in this space with reference to the Israel question, any agreement or settlement or reconciliation from a position of weakness never works to a state’s advantage, as it doesn’t in favour of individuals and groups.

Nor in this world of info ops is it good to keep things under wraps, at least beyond a certain point. It’s simple: secrecy begets speculation; speculation makes a great target for info ops.

The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times. He reluctantly tweets @ejazhaider

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.