Congress’s annual worldwide-threat hearings are usually scary affairs, during which intelligence-agency leaders run down all the dangers confronting the United States. This year’s January assessment was especially worrisome, because the minds of American citizens were listed as key battlegrounds for geopolitical conflict for the first time. “China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea increasingly use cyber operations to threaten both minds and machines in an expanding number of ways,” wrote Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. Coats went on to suggest that Russia’s 2016 election interference is only the beginning, with new tactics and deep fakes probably coming soon, and the bad guys learning from experience.
Deception, of course, has a long history in statecraft and warfare. The Greeks used it to win at the Battle of Salamis in the fifth century b.c. The Allies won the Second World War in Europe with a surprise landing at Normandy—which hinged on an elaborate plan to convince Hitler that the invasion would be elsewhere. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviets engaged in extensive “active measure” operations, using front organizations, propaganda, and forged American documents to peddle half-truths, distortions, and outright lies in the hope of swaying opinion abroad.
But what makes people susceptible to deception? A colleague and I recently launched the two-year Information Warfare Working Group at Stanford. Our first assignment was to read up on psychology research, which drove home how vulnerable we all are to wishful thinking and manipulation.