Cognitive hacking is a cyber attack where threat actors manipulate victims’ perceptions by exploiting their psychological weaknesses. Attackers primarily use disinformation in their campaigns to fuel people’s biases and prejudices.

Read More about Cognitive Hacking

Cognitive hacking often brings riots, protests, and, ultimately, revolutions, and we’ve seen these over time.

James Bone, in “Cognitive Hack: Trust, Deception and Blind Spots,” in fact, gave a fascinating quote regarding cognitive hacking—“Only amateurs attack machines; professionals target people.” And that’s precisely what happens in such a threat. So instead of compromising a target computer network, attackers focus on people.

What Tools Usually Figure in Cognitive Hacking?

Since cognitive hacking relies on changing people’s perceptions, threat actors usually employ the tools below.

  • Social media: 4.7 billion people troop to social networking sites as of July 2022. Many of them could easily fall for misinformation or disinformation regarding people, particularly politicians and the world’s most influential business leaders. 
  • Fake news sites: 80% of adults in the U.S. alone have consumed fake news at one time or another. Like people who readily trust what they read on social media, those who knowingly or unknowingly frequent nontraditional news sources could be incited to change their perceptions of current events and act accordingly. 
  • Troll farms: These malicious companies employing hundreds to thousands of disinformation spreaders online have grown in number over time. 

Is Cognitive Hacking the Same as Spreading Fake News?

Given that fake news sites aren’t the only tools cognitive hackers use, we can say that spreading fake news is just a subset of cognitive hacking.

How Does Cognitive Hacking Work?

As far back as 2017, Trend Micro published in-depth fake news research revealing various cognitive hacking techniques that attackers can employ. These include:

  • Creating a celebrity: One way to sway people into changing their perceptions is to employ a celebrity account. Note that the celebrity used doesn’t have to be real. This ruse involves four steps—obtaining followers (11,500 followers), reposting and running polls (55,000+ followers), getting regional fans (125,000+ followers), and broadening the account’s popularity (300,000+ followers).
cognitive hacking
  • Instigating a street protest: This is the ruse used to storm the U.S. Capitol in 2021. Such a campaign can be bought on the Dark Web. Doing so involves two steps—creating 20 social media groups with 1,000+ members each and obtaining 50,000 retweets and 100,000 likes, plus publishing 10 fake news stories and 50 related videos.
  • Discrediting a journalist: Another way to gain credibility for a disinformation article is to discredit anyone (particularly a well-known reporter) who says otherwise. For US$55,000, cognitive hackers can purchase this package with a fake news article that gets 50,000 reposts or likes per week and at least 100,000 views. Buyers also get to have a specific journalist’s account poisoned with 200,000 bot followers (causing them to be disabled on the platform) and 12,000 malicious comments with 10,000 retweets or likes each.

Is Cognitive Hacking a Form of Cyber Propaganda?

Cyber propaganda is defined as fake news and hate speech content that often targets politicians and influential individuals.

Given that, we can say that cognitive hacking is a means to instigate cyber propaganda. In this case, cyber propaganda would be the materials used in cognitive hacking attacks.

We’ve seen cognitive hacking result in not just political and social unrest but also national instability.

Key Takeaways

  • Cognitive hacking is a cyber attack where threat actors manipulate victims’ perceptions by exploiting their psychological weaknesses.
  • Biases and prejudices play a massive part in making cognitive hacking attacks work. The targets should be easily duped into believing what the threat actors say.
  • Social media, fake news sites, and troll farms are the usual cognitive hacking tools.
  • Cognitive hackers employ at least three techniques to incite malicious action from their targets—creating a celebrity, instigating a street protest, and discrediting a journalist.

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