Achieving election success by hacking your serotonin.

Achieving election success by hacking your serotonin.

Achieving election success by hacking your serotonin.

By Philip Ingram MBE

With at least 60 elections across the globe in 2024, including the Russian Presidential Election, US Presidential Election, EU Elections and UK General Election, what techniques are the political parties likely to use in order to persuade you, the voter, to back them?  How can we be sure that what we are seeing is right especially when our politics seems to be one of soundbites over substance? Are we being misled or worse still hacked……..?

If we start to look at the science behind messaging there is no better start than a fascinating paper, written in 2014 by Victor Danciu at the Bucharest University of Economic Studies. It is called, ‘Manipulative marketing: persuasion and manipulation of the consumer through advertising.’ What has this got to do with serotonin or election campaigns I hear you ask?

Most of us can think of an advert on the television that we like, it makes us smile, its visuals or sound is pleasing, it instantly reminds us of the product being advertised. It is that behavioural response that is triggered by the release of chemicals in the brain, with serotonin being one of them alongside dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins.  These are the “feel good quartet” of compounds responsible for our happiness.  Political campaigns, like any marketing activities are designed to stimulate these compounds.

Serotonin is released when you feel significant or important. Dopamine motivates us to take action toward goals, desires, and needs, and gives a surge of reinforcing pleasure when achieving them. Oxytocin creates intimacy, trust, and builds healthy relationships and endorphins are released but the body when stimulated in the right way such as laughing, and they help to alleviate anxiety and depression.

In his paper, Victor Danciu talks of non-manipulative advertising and manipulative advertising. He says, “non-manipulative persuasion through advertising consists in simply presenting the product or service, in the best possible light. This type of advertising is truthful, that is the facts presented are real, the information is giving in a clear, logical manner, in order to convince by informing.”  Just think, how many political campaigns have you seen that would fit into this bracket?

He describes manipulative advertising as, “deceitful advertising which uses facts, but deceptive facts. It uses confusing, misleading, or blatantly untrue statements when promoting a product.”  Remember the product in an election is a perception, a belief, a political party, or an individual. In politics, every public comment by every politician is designed to send a message, it is marketing and advertising, you must decide if it is manipulative or non-manipulative?

Manipulative advertising uses facts, arguments in a way designed to influence consumers emotions in a misleading and deceptive manner. Photographs are photoshopped to make the subject look more appealing, the chosen words are designed to stimulate an emotional response, the right music is added to enhance that emotion and humour is used in some adverts to make people laugh. All of these are stimulating the “feel good quartet” and when that happens it is natural to think positively about what is being offered.

In a similar way emotions can be stimulated when negative arguments are pushed out like cuts in police numbers, austerity, hospital waiting times, crime, pollution, minority rights and more. The key here is not that these are being highlighted, but how they are highlighted.

A full tool set of linguistic, visual, auditory techniques are used to influence the thinking of the person receiving the messages. These are not always obvious, Danciu says, “the most important and effective linguistic manipulation is that of subliminal advertising which aims at the subliminal seduction of the customer.”

Dr Michael Kosinski who gained his PhD from Cambridge University, specialised in Big Data. He has shown that analysing a big data profile on individuals can give insights as to how people think, what they like, what they don’t like and even potentially how they probably vote. This technique is called psychodemographic profiling and he explains how this can be used to develop targeted marketing or messaging, designed to drive a behavioural response in an individual.

Now, combine Danciu’s research with Artificial Intelligence or AI, to ensure the messaging is delivered in the way you want it with the messages you want to hear using language that has had an impact on you before and that is what Dr Kosinski describes.

It is no accident that health professionals or recent hospital patients will see more political messaging about the state of the health service or new investment coming. It is no accident that police officers and people in high crime areas will see more political messaging about police cuts, or reinvestment to recruit more police.

In the United States, in the run up to the 2020 presidential election, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Trump campaign was building “a digital operation unrivalled by Democrats in its use of data-mining techniques and algorithms.” The Spectator magazine when talking of a UK General Election, “the most pivotal campaigning will take place, increasingly online. Digital campaigning has risen in importance with each election.”

“Personal data is now as important a commodity as oil,” Dean Armstrong a leading KC told The Telegraph newspaper, but the question is who has access to that personal data and could it be misused?  Michael Kosinski found in his research, that a basic profile just based on social media likes can predict your behaviours. An advanced profile, based on what websites you visit, what news you read, your job, your politics, your purchases, and more, would mean such a company knows you better than you know yourself. Combine that with the data of your friends and families and an extremely comprehensive understanding of what makes you and your loved ones ‘tick,’ can be known. This type of profiling has already been abused as the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal highlighted.

With the right data, people can be targeted at an individual level in a way they know it will have the biggest psychological effect, utilising the “feel good quartet” again.  Most people will say “I haven’t been influenced by anything; I know my own mind.” I just go back to Danciu comment, “the most important and effective linguistic manipulation is that of subliminal advertising which aims at the subliminal seduction of the customer.”

The potential for undue influence is summed up by a caveat the UK’s secret intelligence agency, MI6, put on many of their human intelligence reports, referred to as CX reports. The caveat says, “this individual may be trying to influence as much as inform.”  Influence operations are centuries old, what makes them personal is the ability for computers to develop such detailed profiles and thereby predict behavioural reactions to certain stimuli. Be mindful for your serotonin is being hacked!

Russian Cyber actors use plausibly deniable outlets to disguise hacks.

Russian Cyber actors use plausibly deniable outlets to disguise hacks.

Russian Cyber actors use plausibly deniable outlets to disguise hacks

By Philip Ingram MBE

The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and US National Security Agency (NSA) have said that the Turla group, a suspected Russia-based hacking group, have been disguising their activities by adopting and using techniques used by suspected Iran-based hacking groups.  Effectively masking who was really responsible for hacks. Why would a Russian based group do this?

On 27th April 2007 a massive deliberate denial of service attack was launched against Estonia, causing government webservices, banks and much more to fail.  The attack lasted 3 weeks. Whilst suspicion was laid at the feet of the Russians, they denied involvement as they have done with attacks in Georgia and Ukraine. The sophistication of many of these attacks suggest the only possible perpetrator is a major actor with the resources that many believe are only available to states.

With Cyber space not being regulated in the same way as Land, Maritime, Air or space when it comes to international actions relating to war with an equivalent of the Geneva Conventions and Protocols or an Outer Space Treaty, cyberwar and state sponsored cyber attacks are unregulated in international law. To avoid political embarrassment and the possibility of political repercussions the use of a plausibly deniable outlet is key, as without substantive proof there can never be substantive repercussions.

Sun Tzu the infamous Chinese 6th century general and philosopher said in his book the Art of War, “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”  The Russians have a doctrine called маскировка (maskirovka) which is all about ‘masking’ or deception and is central to all they do; they follow the philosophy laid down by Sun Tzu allowing them to interfere overseas but be able to deny it. We saw this with the attack on Sergei Skripal in Salisbury last year.

We keep hearing of cyber-attacks from Iran, a closed country with little access to western academia and training, yet they can mount some of the most sophisticated cyber incidents.  We hear the same of North Korea, who should have zero access to technology, academia, and extremely controlled access to the internet. However one has to ask why in 2017, TransTelekom, a major Russian telecommunications company that owns one of the world’s largest networks of fibre optic cables and is a full subsidiary of Russian national railway operator, Russian Railways who are owned by the Russian Federation put a fast internet connection into North Korea.

Around the same time, the North Koreans went from having a small nuclear capability with short-range missiles that failed more often than not, to have a hydrogen bomb capability with ICBMs that worked more often than not.  No one has explained how that technological advance happened so quickly in a country under strict international sanctions.  We have to remember, North Korea got blamed for the Sony Hack and the WannaCry attack of 2017, could it have been a proxy using a plausibly deniable outlet?  The why is because they can and want to maintain the ability to influence global activities without repercussions. Why do I suggest this? That is simple, they have history and a doctrine, tried and tested over many years, they also have a paranoia about anti Russian global sentiment reinforcing that inherent need to ‘do something’. Cyber space provided that perfect environment. A smudge of what could be a Russian fingerprint sits over many incidents. Not enough for real proof, but something that always seems to be there.

What is not unusual is that this technique of pretending to be someone else, using a plausibly deniable proxy identity is not that new however, we are likely to be coming more aware of it, have better analytical tools so that the intelligence agencies can be bolder at calling it out.  What is of concern is using a plausibly deniable proxy identity could also be used to instigate state sponsored terrorism, especially when online recruiting and radicalisation is so prevalent.

This joint statement today is a clear message to all potential threat actors across the globe from the UKs GCHQ and the US NSA saying, “we are watching you.”