War of Minds: Psychological Manipulations in Society

Written By: Ayesha Soomro and Ayesha Wajahat

21st century’s diverse asymmetrical threats have changed the dynamics of wars, with it not being limited to the battlefield alone but also trascending to the domain of mind/psychology transcending to the domain of minds and not only limited to the battlefields. Psychological manipulation of the opponent affecting the will to fight cannot be overruled. Psychological operations when fully coordinated with tactical, operational and strategic planning and effectively integrated into decision-making process make it possible to attain covert desired objectives without being noticed by the targeted audience.


When information is disseminated to change emotion, attitude, mind and behaviour of foreign audience in favour of operator’s national objectives, the phenomenon is called mind-framing or psychological manipulation. It refers to convincing the opposing forces and neutral nations to take actions favorable to their sponsors. History has witnessed that militaries and political leaders have used psychological manipulation in various forms to gain desired objectives. The ultimate objective of psychological manipulation is to gain cooperation, support and compliance from the targeted audience. Once you start controlling the mind or psyche of an individual, you actually start controlling the psyche of the whole society. A closer view would tell that Pakistani society is being manipulated through such mind-framing acts.     


Another psychological tool, persuasion is also one of the main components of this manipulation. Psychological operators tactfully manage the perceptions to achieve long-term objectives. We don’t see things as they are, rather we see things in a manipulated/influenced form and as it is desired to be perceived.


Mind-framing limits the mind to the specific choices imposed upon it and prevents it from searching for other available options. It is performed by either using proven practices or with engineering and intelligence tools. For instance, initiation of dialogue on UN forum for condemnation of Jerusalem as capital of Israel is actually an unconscious recognition of Israel as a state. This has been done by successful mind-controlling or mind-framing. For achieving psychological control of minds, three significant areas, i.e., affective component (emotions), behavioural component and cognitive component (thoughts) are manipulated in a way that the targets’ complete existence pattern is structured in the desired fashion.


Emotions play a vital role in controlling the mind of masses. These emotions trigger other related emotions with varying intensities. After 9/11, a state of emotions of apprehension was created in the hearts and minds of Pakistani people. What would happen next? How would we survive the fight against terrorism? Are we fighting a proxy war? If we do not follow the U.S., what kind of consequences would we face? This emotion of apprehension was exploited by the superpower and further intensified by fear generated through terrorist events/incidents. These included fear of survival, fear of unknown circumstances and fear of death and destruction. Latently the fear was converted into terror when the terrorists started targeting our general population indiscriminately with bombings in public areas. This is how emotional exploitation was achieved. The enemy got hold of our emotions and started making attitudinal changes in the Pakistani society.


Robert Plutchik’s psycho-evolutionary theory of emotion is one of the most influential theory that explains how emotions are triggered and intensified to control individual or groups. According to him, emotions help to adapt and deal with issues posed by the environment. Commonly, we see that various sections of our society (ethnicities, caste, creeds and religious entities) are working with their particular emotions. The psychological operators hailing in the shape of community heads, political leaders, media centres, hostile actors and other eminent societal figures are contributing to trigger primary emotions (sometimes mixed or compound emotions) and create negative or positive influences. Timely understanding and taking target audience’s emotions into account particularly in pre, during and post chaotic times gives a deeper understanding of how to deal with target audience and prepare Psy Ops (psychological operations) product.


The cooperation and goodwill gesture of United States in the form of aid to Pakistan is one example of cohesive objectives of psychological operations. Trump’s tweet gave an impression to the world that the United States has doled out USD 33 billion to Pakistan and distorted the fact that more than half of the amount was actually a reimbursement. Since 9/11, the United States gained cooperation from Pakistan to achieve its cohesive objectives during Global War on Terror (GWOT) and intentionally ignored/overruled losses incurred by Pakistan, both in men and material.


In the same way, India applied divisive tactics of psychological manipulation. As Indian terrorist Kulbhushan Jadhav has unveiled the true picture of Indian Psy Ops aimed at the destabilization of Pakistan by all means, either emotional (discouragement, defeatism, apathy), behavioural (hostility and non-cooperation, discoordination, panic and privatization), or cognitive (surrender, defection and desertion, subversion and resistance).


Affect (emotion) and behaviour have drastic effects on human cognition (thought pattern). Human actions are governed by these thoughts. They think what is right and wrong, what is good or bad before they carry out the action. Cognition can also be controlled and framed by trained persuaders or manipulators. They give such statistics, facts and figures that change human thinking pattern through the peripheral route of persuasion. During the FATA and Swat operations, the terrorists tried to exploit religion on both ends to shape the cognition of Pakistani population (included civil and military). They manipulated the concept of fasaad and turned it into Jihad. The enemy moulded the Quranic references in such a way that it started influencing the cognition of Muslims for some time. This change in cognition demoralized the nation as it led them to think they were fighting against their own Muslim brethren.


The gap between conduct of action and creation of favourable emotions, cognition and behaviour must be bridged by some means of communication to disseminate information of such actions to the target audience. These means of communication should be in agreement with government and military policy. Political and military leadership should control the psychological manipulation and its effects on civilians by psychologically framing the minds of our own population. As a nation, we all need to be mindful of our enemies and their Psy Ops. The information, events and their interpretation must be carefully weighed and explained to the masses. The challenge has compounded in the age of mass media. It should become our national habit and way of thinking to critically analyze the information/events from the point of view of enemy Psy Ops. This habit of ‘seeing beyond’ will keep us on correct lines as a whole. We are facing the enemy in kinetic as well as in cognitive domains. The cognitive wars are more dangerous as these can be lost without even being aware of them. Today, being a nuclear power, our enemies have less options to attack us physically, but this limitation has allowed them to focus more on indirect attacks. A cursory view of information and content being created, sponsored and spread through different communication mediums in Pakistan is enough to tell the actual story. Pakistan is under attack in the cognitive domain through the use of psychological warfare techniques.


We have to defend and win at this front, too!

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