PsyOps / Information Warfare Operations

In this section, I look into the murky world of PsyOps / Psychological and Information Warfare Operations.

With the world swamped with noise from misinformation, disinformation, and fake news together with strategically planned psychological and information-based warfare operations sense-making is difficult. I look to figure out why and what we can do to protect ourselves from it. 

Fear and loathing in your living room

Fear and loathing in your living room

In this article I look at the Reticular Activating System

So why is fear so addictive and used by social media, tech, government, and big business to refocus your attention?

First, let’s look at something called the Reticular Activating System. I was looking for a way to describe this and came across this Medium article by  Tobias van Schneider titled “If you want it, you might get it. The Reticular Activating System explained” which is well worth a read and explains it as follows:

“The Reticular Activating System (RAS) is a bundle of nerves at our brainstem that filters out unnecessary information so the important stuff gets through.

The RAS is the reason you learn a new word and then start hearing it everywhere. It’s why you can tune out a crowd full of talking people, yet immediately snap to attention when someone says your name or something that at least sounds like it."

Taking into consideration everything we have learned about the Russian Information Warfare, adding this in with what happened in elections in recent years and the influence of companies like Cambridge Analytica and how they shape or influence narratives this should give us pause for thought. Especially when we get a deeper understanding of how they use behavioural psychology, data science, machine learning, and digital marketing to maximise effectiveness. Not to mention data hacks and trickery that standard marketers would not use due to ethical boundaries.

If you then add in Confirmation Bias, echo chambers, and social bubbles we can see why so many people, including ourselves, can be caught up in a false narrative and see evidence for it everywhere. When something looks like the thing that we believe we are fully informed about when it tastes and smells of it then we tend to think it is what we think it is.

But there is something else about the Reticular Activation System that can add fuel to this fire. The Reticular Activation System is cited as being how we learn new things like behaviours. With repetition, these new learned behaviours can become habits. You may have heard the phrase neurons that fire together wire together. And this is how through the neuroplasticity of our brains we learn, and it is with constant repetitive firing that these behaviours can become newly learned knowledge and with behaviours they can become habits or even addictions. It is also through the understanding of this that we can break habits or addictions.

One of the ways that are recommended to break addictions is to, through repetition and training, break the connection between existing neurons that have been firing together for a long time by forming new connections and through repetition create firmer stronger connections as the old ones fall away. Sounds easy but it's not.

It is well documented, on this site, on my Facebook page, and in many other places how social media, politics, the news media, and big business all use fear as a tactic, and their systems are incentivised around these. Because they know that fear is addictive.

Emotions create chemical reactions known as neuropeptides which are amino acids that shoot through our bloodstream. When we are excited, upset, happy, sad, in fear, or in any emotional state these neuropeptides shoot around our system to find their related neuroreceptors.

This is sounding all very scientific and I am not a scientist, so I do not intend to bombard you with these points other than to explain what is going on within us, or those we love and the general public when the manipulative marketing and communication techniques of are used. It is here that there is a key to the understanding of how people get stuck in a cycle of fear which can in turn mean, due to other psychological triggers which I will expand upon as we move forward such as social norms, commitment, and confirmation bias means that some quite radical views can become embedded in the individual, group or social psyche.

Each type of neuropeptide has an equally unique neuroreceptor that it looks for and attaches itself to. Great so far. So depending upon the emotion and related chemical reaction there will be a different peptide and receptor for each. If however, one set of neuropeptides is getting way more chemical stimulus than the other, say the one related to fear, then the remaining neuroreceptors that are not getting stimulus can change to the shape and function of those that are currently getting their fix. What can this mean? It can mean that the body, and your physiology can scream out to you to find the right kind of stimulus to create more of the neuropeptides that it has now changed to be able to receive.

What does that all mean in the context we are talking about today? It means that if people become overstimulated with fear and are lacking other stimuli that would bring about more positive emotional chemical states then the body will trigger the mind to chase, want more, and ultimately become addicted to that state. Which is exactly what they want. Why do they want it? Simply because it is more addictive than any other state. So, from a digital media point of view where your screen time is sold to advertisers based on how long you stay on the platform if they get you in a doom scrolling cycle of fear they earn more money from paying advertisers.

The knock-on effect of all this is the fractured disparate state of the world we see before us today. A world wrapped in fear, hate and loathing. Where right is pitched against left, where facts are fluid and can have alternatives, where fake news, disinformation, and misinformation are rife and undermining the very fabric of societies around the world.

What can we do to protect ourselves from it? Firstly, we need to guard against these cycles of fear. If we catch ourselves doom scrolling, only seeing the world in a very negative light and feeling depressed take a look at how we are interacting with the news media, social media, and entertainment in general. Is it all framed around fear and loathing? Can we take a break from it all and get more exercise and get outdoor more? No this is not a self-help book but it is about self-protection and protecting our mental and ultimately physical state in turn.

Do we really want the agents of control to have such influence not just on our psychology but our physiology? I doubt it.

Secondly, we need to educate others about these issues to try and help them to get a better understanding of what is going on. This is not about conspiracy theories. This is not about lizard men or people in smoking rooms making shady plans. This is all about money and greed and how yet again people didn’t stop to say ‘should we do this?’ but instead focused on

if they can do it. Not wanting to lose out to others that would if they did not. It is not necessarily conspiratorial, but their actions are intentional and designed into their business models and technologies where they are focused on making their platforms more addictive with more user engagement.

So thirdly, we need to campaign awareness on this subject to legislators and push the tech industry to change its modus operandi, to change its business models for the sake of the greater good.

All of this manipulative fracturing behaviour is causing the chaos we see in the world today. Some bad actors have caught on to all of the above and along with the big tech corporations and big business in general are using it to shake things up and destabilise society. And they are doing a good job of it.

Until we change the incentive models of these digital platforms, we will be held captive by them. I cannot empathise enough with how crucial this is. Because we are all connected in modern society if we are going to move forward on subjects like climate change, exclusivity, and any of the big existential issues of the modern world we need to get this right because, with so much disinformation, misinformation and fake news rampant around the internet moving those debates forward in a constructive way is almost impossible.

If you see my post on deflective marketing and reflexive control you will gain a further understanding of why certain bad actors, governments, states, and agents might be aiming for the very unstable situation we now see ourselves in today.

But let’s finish on a positive note because I do not want to add to the fear and loathing already running around your bloodstream. It is not all doom and gloom and many are waking up to these issues, apart from Sleepless Dystopian there is The Center for Humane Technology and the fantastic work Tristan Harris has done there including the creation of the Netflix film The Social Dilemma, the is the Open Rights Group in the UK who campaign tirelessly to protect your privacy, data rights, and digital rights and to educate both the public and government on these issues, challenging them where needed. There is the Algorithmic Justice League which is challenging racial bias in facial recognition and AI but also campaigning for technology to serve the needs of all using art and research to highlight these issues and not just a few and there is Big Brother Watch who is reclaiming privacy from the surveillance state and campaigning for free speech online.

At Sleepless Dystopian I am trying, as a writer, digital and data-driven marketing and behavioural communications specialist to expose and educate about these issues in posts like this, through sharing others' work in these areas on social media and through pulling apart the framing of the narratives to expose the manipulative techniques involved. I am trying to do this through both educational conteXts but also by using art, creative writing, fiction, and non-fiction, prose, satire, and mentalism to get the message across.

My experience and education with data-driven and digital marketing give me the insight to be able to expand on what and how these technologies, techniques, and tactics are being used. However, I also feel the current discourse is not exposing in enough detail the behavioural communication techniques being used to persuade and manipulate us. Although this is touched on to some degree it does not go into the kind of detail I have above. I see many doing great work in fact-checking by checking the framing bias of messaging does not seem to be an area that is being addressed in great detail. This is something that I want to work on and educate people too.

You can support all of these groups and/or create something of your own to campaign and highlight these issues. But even if you are not up for that you can at least learn about these issues as education is the first line of defense.


Photo by Toni Cuenca:



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