Monday, March 29, 2021

Social Engineering - Mind Manipulation at Scale

Social engineering poses potential threats to human rights, markets and democracies. These concerns are based on the notion that humans are a product of their environment and the information they consume.
The average person in the US spends approximately 3 hours each day consuming data from their device screens.  That totals about a month and a half of screen time each year.  We are influenced by that time, and it changes our thinking and behaviors.  Is our time investment making us better or worse as humans, parents, employees, leaders, mentors, friends, etc?  Are we being influenced to become the kind of person we want to be?

Our addictive dependence upon the internet and the information therein is the revolutionary development of our time. Today, we have approximately 26 to 50 billion devices connected to the internet. For every PC or handset connected to the internet, 5 to 10 other devices will be sold with their own internet connection. These devices are both collecting data on us, and pushing information/disinformation to us. The applications, platforms and the messages we receive from them are not random. They are purposeful and managed by organizations intent on influencing us. Often these influencing efforts are invisible or overlooked by us. The influence strategies and campaigns being directed at us are called social engineering - the focus of this article.

Social engineering is the ability to hack into both an individual’s brain, and/or a community’s brain at scale for the purpose of manipulating attitudes, thinking, behaviors and emotions using mass communication, social media platforms and personalized messaging.  The internet  provides those with nefarious intent all they need to accomplish this including a relatively low cost of entry into mass communication, widespread availability of social media tools, platforms, streams of personal data and the opportunity to circumvent traditional controls of information.

Social engineering has the potential to be very dangerous.  So much so, that military organizations consider it a weapon to be used against adversaries under the name information warfare.   This weapon exploits “information technology for the purposes of propaganda, disinformation, and psychological operations.”  For the first time in military history, adversaries can communicate directly with large numbers of their opponents’ military personnel and population for the purposes of influencing their thinking and feelings via mobile messaging apps, e-mails, and social media platforms, in addition to the traditional media channels.  This ability is not lost to commercial organizations today either.

Social engineering strategies employ fear, desire or ideology to promote specific emotions, attitudes and behaviors.  The ease, speed, volume, velocity and virality of information dissemination as well as the increasing reach, scale, precision and personalization of information targeting have popularized the use of social engineering as a tool for influencing by governments, political organizations, militaries and businesses.

Social engineering strategies link mass communication in the form of cable tv channels, influencers, radio programs, messaging and social media platforms, with the exploitation of a target audience's personal cultural-psychological attributes often harvested via online activities and social media participation. 

It is the ability to scale this weapon that makes social engineering so effective and dangerous today.  When communication platforms enable those with nefarious intent to directly push personalized messages and disinformation directly into the brains of billions of people for the purpose of manipulation, that makes understanding social engineering and its impact worthy of our research and contemplation. 

Read more on the Future of Information, Truth and Influence here:
Kevin Benedict
Partner | Futurist | Leadership Strategies at TCS
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***Full Disclosure: These are my personal opinions. No company is silly enough to claim them. I work with and have worked with many of the companies mentioned in my articles.