Mon. Jul 15th, 2024

Helsinki, 24 August 2023

As the security environment changes, it is important to prepare for disruptions caused by hostile actors. A new discussion paper sheds light on the psychological mechanisms that can make hybrid influence activities effective. Understanding the mechanisms behind influence activities plays a key role in countering hostile actions effectively.

The discussion paper published by the Working group on behavioural foresight and knowledge in future administration (FINBEPOL) discusses how hostile actors influence public opinion. The goal is to increase awareness of hybrid threats and vulnerabilities in society that may be targeted by hybrid influence activities. The discussion paper offers a new perspective on security thinking by adding cognitive, social and emotional dimensions to the discussion.

Hybrid influence activities are not a new phenomenon, but dwindling trust in state institutions, polarised socio-political views and changes in the digital operating environment have enabled them to take on new forms.

“Certain features of democratic states make them susceptible to hybrid influence activities. Hostile actors for example benefit from an open, unregulated media environment when disseminating disinformation. It is important to understand why and how citizens might absorb the information disseminated by these actors. Expanding the perspective can help us counter hybrid threats by more efficient, democratic means,” says Senior Specialist Emmi Korkalainen.

The behavioural science foresight group works with research data on the information environment with a special focus on the mechanisms for combating misinformation and disinformation. The discussion paper aims to illustrate the aggressive psychological and social devices and means of pressure used by hostile actors to change the targeted person’s or group’s behaviour patterns and decision-making processes. The aim of the discussion paper is to provide a more human-centred, behavioural perspective for the examination of hybrid threats.

Disrupting decision-making and sowing uncertainty as principles of hybrid influencing

The discussion paper describes how individuals’ susceptibility to hybrid influencing is based on natural information processing tendencies, such as the desire to reduce perceived uncertainty. The fast-paced communications environment creates uncertainties and information gaps that hostile actors can exploit to strengthen their own agendas. In their activities, hostile actors aim to exploit people’s basic psychological needs, such as the needs for togetherness, autonomy and competence. Our drive to reduce uncertainty and meet our basic needs can make us prone to adopting more radical or simplified beliefs than usual.

We seek out other people in an effort to mitigate uncertainty, which is why our social environment is such an integral part of what we believe in. With this in mind, the discussion paper describes how social identity and social contagion can explain the spread of behaviour in communities.

The discussion paper also sheds light on how, as polarisation and uncertainty increase, even a small impetus can lead to changes in the state of society. A hostile actor may seek to destabilise the current situation by influencing social narratives, for example. It is important to recognise that due to the systemic impacts of hybrid influencing, an actor does not necessarily need to anticipate the exact consequences of their actions. In this case, it is enough for them to know that the consequences will be negative. It is important to find ways to defend ourselves against hybrid threats without endangering the very values the measures seek to defend. Behavioural science plays a key role in this discussion.

The discussion paper is based on the conceptual model developed by the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE) and the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission (The Landscape of Hybrid Threats: A conceptual model) and on earlier definitions of the concepts in psychology and complexity science.

Source – Finnish Government

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