Defining the Cognitive Domain

By Paul Ottewell

Estimated Time to Read: 11 minutes

Abstract: The ubiquity and automation of social networks now makes it possible for public discourse to be manipulated at machine speed. The Battle for Hearts and Minds in the next war could be won or lost without a shot being fired, before even the vanquished party recognises that their interests are threatened. However, there is little consensus among Western scholars or security officials particularly about location and characteristics of the battlefield. This gap in the literature precludes the development of policy, strategy, and capability to prevail on it. This article situates the battle in the hive minds of audiences — the collective perception of a situation held by a group, defined as the cognitive domain. Finally, the article asserts that the cognitive domain is both threatened and vital ground and therefore should be considered a warfighting domain in its own right.

“Fifth Generation Warfare: it will be Cognitive Warfare. In the twenty-first century, war is about winning the information, the decision space either before or during the conflict. This is the deciding factor.”  Lt Gen Vincent R. Stewart.

The convergence of the internet, mobile computing, and social network sites represents the perfection of a machinery of communication of such ubiquity and agility that the potential now exists for public discourse to be manipulated at machine speed. This raises the stakes in the battle of strategic narratives being waged between liberal democracies and rising, revanchist states. Yet there is no consensus among security scholars or officials as to where this battle is taking place.

The UK’s Ministry of Defence (MOD) recognizes five warfighting domains: land, maritime, air, space, and cyberspace. However, none of these five domains account satisfactorily for the territory fought over in the battle for hearts and minds. Julie “Pistol” Janson and Laura Elkins separately argue in this journal for recognition of a sixth warfighting domain: the human domain. While agreeing with both Janson and Elkins that the national security enterprise must take better account of human factors in its capability development, the sixth domain would be more accurately described as being the cognitive domain. This is not pedantry. Competition in the maritime domain is referred to as maritime warfare. Land warfare is to the land domain as air warfare is to the air domain. But what is competition in the human domain to be called? “Human warfare” is inadequate since it lacks specificity or any existing consensus among scholars as to its meaning. Strategic psychological warfare falls short since that term misses the possibility that both psychology and information may be manipulated to influence cognition. Cognition is the mental process of acquiring and comprehending knowledge, which implies the consumption, interpretation and perception of information. Through a process of literary review, combination, and adaptation, this article proposes a definition for the cognitive domain and for competition between parties within it — namely cognitive warfare. Finally, this article argues that the cognitive domain is now of such significance in security studies that it qualifies as a warfighting domain in its own right.

Regardless of the intent behind its transmission, any message of sufficient plausibility can now propagate through the internet across borders and language barriers in seconds. These messages are the building blocks of narratives or ideas. The algorithms that control their distribution reward popularity over veracity. Far from the emancipatory effect that many anticipated as internet access grew exponentially after 1990, the information superhighway has achieved such bandwidth and ubiquity that it can be regarded today as one of the principal battlegrounds of information operations (IO).

The term IO is defined disparately in the extant literature. Somewhat ironically perhaps, it is researchers from Facebook that succeed in elevating thinking on the concept to the Grand Strategic level, defining IO as “actions taken by organized actors (governments or non-state actors) to distort domestic or foreign political sentiment, most frequently to achieve a strategic and/or geopolitical outcome.” Facebook’s definition is adopted for this article since it explicitly links deliberate and targeted activity in the information environment (IE) with sentiment — and thus to human cognition.

As a concept, the IE is oft mentioned but rarely defined. In 2017, the US DOD updated its Joint Operations publication with a contemporary definition:

“The information environment comprises and aggregates numerous social, cultural, cognitive, technical, and physical attributes that act upon and impact knowledge, understanding, beliefs, world views, and, ultimately, actions of an individual, group, system, community, or organization.”

This definition speaks of three dimensions to the IE:  the physical, informational, and human. The physical dimension refers to the infrastructure of server farms, fibre optic cables, and user access devices. The informational dimension refers to the data flowing through and being stored and processed on content nodes as well as the algorithms that sort and share that data with other entities. For the DOD, the human dimension resides in the minds of “decision makers and all others who act upon and are in turn affected by information flows.” The DOD’s definition of the third dimension stops there but it can be developed further. Mental faculties include the heuristics, identity, culture, and biases that together constitute the human mind. As information passes through these cognitive processes and filters, whether consciously or unconsciously, it becomes perception. Perception is a product of cognition, which is how information is received and understood. It is therefore more accurate to refer to the third dimension of the IE as the cognitive dimension. Considered this way, the IE is a maneuver space for both cyber and cognitive operations: cyber operations through physical hardware and network connections and cognitive operations through the minds that form perceptions from the content of the information.

For Ehlers Jr and Blannin, individual and collective minds form the cognitive dimension of the IE. The cognitive dimension is a cohort’s collective perception of an information set. By extension therefore, this dimension is a warfighting domain (also known as an operating domain), albeit one with a higher level of abstraction than the maritime or land domains. The argument rests on the assertion that a strategic competition can be won in the cognitive domain before the vanquished party even recognises that its interests are threatened. Wars can be lost in the cognitive domain without a shot being fired. This point is not lost on the People’s Liberation Army, whose doctrine includes no fewer than three types of warfare in the IE, among them “public opinion warfare.”

The concept of the cognitive domain requires definition if it is to have analytical power. An accepted definition is a vital building block upon which other researchers can base their work. A consensus on the analysis and argumentation about the cognitive domain is crucial to formulating this definition. Without such definitions, there can be no constructive debate.

Donnelly and Farley present a rigorous definition for the term domain in this journal, addressing a key gap in the literature. They cast it as “a critical macro manoeuvre space whose access or control is vital to the freedom of action and superiority required by the mission.” This definition establishes that a domain is a space in which parties can manoeuvre. UK Defence Doctrine defines manoeuvre as an element of joint action “used to gain advantage in time and space.”

Donnelly and Farley’s definition implies that if access or control of a region is vital, then that region qualifies as a domain so long as it is sufficiently ‘macro’ or high-level. Buzan’s seminal work on security argues that authority and resources for emergency actions is only forthcoming when the relevant audience collectively recognises an existential threat to a referent object, the survival of which that same audience considers vital. It follows therefore that the proper functioning of a liberal democracy depends on its collective threat perception and public discourse — the deliberations of its press and citizenry or vox populi — being free from outside influence. If, as Buzan argues, a popular mandate is required for a polity to authorise and sustain emergency actions, then the vox populi is a vector by which a third party can influence that polity’s response to threats. A citizenry’s ‘hive mind’ is therefore vital territory. Thus, the cognitive dimension qualifies as a domain — and, inductively, since its protection will be the preserve of the national security enterprise, as a warfighting (or operating) domain.

Donnelly and Farley end their definition with “freedom of action and superiority required by the mission,” which they explain derives from the definition of the Clausewitzian concept of Centre of Gravity. The hook to the ‘mission’ serves to remind that manoeuvre is about achieving particular ends or, put another way, about achieving advantage.

UK Joint Concept Note 2/18 offers a working definition for information advantage as “the credible advantage gained through the continuous, adaptive, decisive, and resilient employment of information and information systems.” This definition feels incomplete, not least in that it makes no relative comparison with the activity of the adversary. To address this in the cognitive domain, the author defines cognitive advantage as being the credible advantage gained when one party achieves superior influence over a target audience’s collective agenda.

The concept of the agenda flows from Cobb and Elder’s work on public agenda-building, the process by which issues escalate within a democracy to “command the attention and concern of decision makers.”  Cobb et al define the formal agenda as “the list of items which decision-makers have formally accepted for serious consideration,” and the public agenda as “all issues which (1) are the subject of widespread attention or at least awareness; (2) require action, in the view of a sizeable proportion of the public; and (3) are the appropriate concern of some governmental unit, in the perception of community members.”  

Combining all of the above, the cognitive domain is defined as:

A domain consisting of perception and reasoning in which manoeuvre is achieved by exploiting the information environment to influence interconnected beliefs, values, and culture of individuals, groups, and/or populations.

Breaking the definition down, the first phrase — “perception and reasoning” — situates the vital territory of the domain. The second phrase — “manoeuvre is achieved by exploiting the information environment” — identifies how actors pursue advantage in the domain. The final phrase — “interconnected beliefs, values and culture of individuals, groups and/or populations” — provides a framework for scholars to analyse the galvanising principle around which a cohort is formed, or that serves to isolate an individual from others.

With the cognitive domain defined, it is possible to define a term for competition within that space. As cyber warfare is to the cyber domain, then cognitive warfare is to the cognitive domain.

Alderman considers manoeuvres in what he terms “the domain of the mind” as “an amplified version of psychological warfare with the goals of dividing an enemy nation’s people and leadership along social, economic, and political lines, destroying them from the inside without firing a shot.”  This definition implies cognitive warfare is an intrinsically destructive and/or coercive process. This is a mischaracterisation since, as will be discussed below, manoeuvres in the cognitive domain can include flexing soft power to attract and persuade other parties.

Rosner and Siman-Tov assert that cognitive warfare is “manipulation of the public discourse by external elements seeking to undermine social unity or damage public trust in the political system.”  Mackiewicz contends that cognitive warfare “is a disinformation process to psychologically wear down the receivers of the information.”  Both definitions suffer from a negative bias since neither allows for exploration of what defensive cognitive warfare might entail.

With the bias removed, the definition of cognitive warfare is:

Manoeuvres in the cognitive domain to establish a predetermined perception among a target audience in order to gain advantage over another party.

OTH, Emerging Security Environment, Multi-Domain Operations

When a party wages it intensely, characterised by malign intent or in the defence thereof, cognitive warfare is an instrument of hard power since it is seeking to coerce a party into a course of action. Seeding disinformation to distract or deceive a target audience so that it acts against its best interests would be such an employment of hard power. Yet actors may also use the cognitive domain as a manoeuvre space for soft power projection. International cooperation in higher education is a good example, ranging from the European Union’s Erasmus+ scheme to China’s more controversial Confucius Institutes. The online conspiracy-debunking services, particularly those offered by well-reputed and non-partisan institutions are another good example of soft power projection in the cognitive domain. The Associated Press and the British Broadcasting Corporation’s both enjoy global reach and cultivated reputations for reporting news and current affairs impartially. They are significant soft power assets for the US and UK respectively. Other public information providers are available.

As both the United States and the United Kingdom undertake reviews of their national security strategies, it is essential that these governments consider the nascent vitality of the cognitive domain alongside its more tangible cousins in order to allocate appropriate resources and to develop new doctrine, to defend and exploit it. The definition proposed here provides a common determination of what is to be protected and what is at stake should freedom of manoeuvre be denied therein. While it is admittedly a highly abstract concept, the cognitive domain is a warfighting domain as conceptually real as the land we build our homes on, and no less deserving of consideration by security planners and analysts alike. Western national security enterprises ignore it at their peril.

Paul Ottewell is a senior Royal Navy officer employed in the higher management of Defense and professional military education. His research area of interest is grand strategy in the information environment. Paul is proudly a former faculty member of the UK Defence Academy and a Master’s graduate of the Defence Studies department of King’s College London.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force, the United Kingdom Government or the United States Government.

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OTH, Emerging Security Environment, Multi-Domain Operations
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