>> back to Challenge main page


Adversarial attempts to manipulate human behaviour will present an enduring challenge to Allied nations’ defence and security. This emerging threat of modern warfare goes beyond controlling the flow of information. Cognitive warfare seeks to change not only what people think, but also how they act. Cognitive warfare is/will be used by adversaries to undermine trust, and to weaken, interfere with, and destabilize a target population, institutions, and States in order to influence their choices.1 The goal of cognitive warfare is for an adversary to destroy their target from within, rendering them unable to resist, deter, or deflect – thereby allowing the perpetrator to follow through with their own agenda.2 Trust is the target. Tactics that serve to destabilize public institutions and influence public or government policy allow discontent to manifest and spread within a society, fostering specific ideologies and behaviours. Cognitive-warfare strategies are ever more prevalent and far-reaching in the 21st century due to use of the internet, social networking, Big Data, social media, and recent advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

1: Cognitive warfare, NATO Innovation Hub June-Nov 2020, François du Cluzel

2 :Cognitive warfare, An Attack on Truth and Thought, NATO Innovation Hub, Fall 2020, Alonso Bernal, Cameron Carter, Ishpreet Singh, Kathy Cao, Olivia Madreperla. John Hopkins University


In this fictitious scenario, NATO forces are deployed to provide assistance and support to an Ally experiencing destabilization resulting from severe social tensions. Prior to their arrival, several videos were circulated across social media of that nation’s leader denouncing particular minority groups. News outlets also began circulating these videos, calling upon the leader and other political representatives to discuss the veracity of the videos. The politicians vehemently deny their validity. Meanwhile, leaders of certain religious groups have turned to social media to encourage their followers to protest against the videos that they believe are true. Tweets are re-shared several hundreds of times along with specific locations for people to join riots against the video messages. Other social-media users post TikTok videos to demonstrate that they have joined the protests and are destroying public property. Citizens fear leaving their homes in case they are attacked.


Given social media’s ability to broadcast information across the nation, NATO’s deployed forces face the challenge of identifying who in the population are most susceptible to the posted material and who are more likely to spread it. Another challenge they face is determining what represents disinformation versus misinformation. This is largely due to the quantity of inaccurate information created and the ease by which it can be disseminated, as well as capabilities to alter audio and video.

Challenge theme:  Understanding and Protecting the Cognitive Domain

Challenge statement: NATO is looking for tools and measures to identify, assess and protect against attacks on the cognitive domain of NATO forces and their Allies. 

Areas of focus include:

  • Identification of when NATO forces and/or their Allies are under a cognitive attack;
  • Verification of the scale and nature of the attack;
  • Quantification and/or level of the success of the attack;
  • Mitigation techniques, tools and measures to counter a cognitive attack; and
  • Support for decision-makers.

Use Cases: