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Emotional warfare permeates us all: we should learn to understand it

“From now on, when battle is done in any part of the world, nothing will be easier than ensuring the sound of gunfire is heard throughout the whole earth […]. However, one day we will undoubtedly have at our disposal resources that are more powerful and a little more subtle, enabling us to remotely affect not only people’s senses but even the hidden depths of their psyches.” – Paul Valéry, Regards sur le monde actuel et autres essais, Gallimard, 1945

Public opinion has always been one of the battlefields in power struggles. Now, though, thanks to a combination of geopolitical uncertainty and the “infobesity” (information overload) of what Joseph Nye called the Information Age1. the role of public opinion is strategically more important. Who gets to decide who the enemy is? Governments or public opinion?The Global North or the Global South? Who will craft the new consensus in this in-between time when “the old is dying and the new cannot be born”?2 Who will define the issues that lead to clashes and division? Who will determine what constitutes an event and what does not?

This “in-between” political situation is now well understood by the people of the world: although still a superpower, the US is no longer a hegemon that can on its own ensure the stability of the international system. What is perhaps less well understood, however, is just how important a role political narratives will play in shaping the overall political scenario as soon as models previously seen as authoritative (in this instance democracy) are called into question and alternative proposals come to the fore. The emergence of the Global South, in particular, is not just a matter of GDP or currency but of counternarratives and new forms of soft power.

It is against this backdrop that the frontiers of information warfare are being pushed back to include emotional warfare. Drawing on a combination of cognitive science and new technology, influence operations are now able to target deeply embedded layers of our identity: the aim is no longer merely to cast doubt on what is true or false but to redirect our emotions, our beliefs, our values and our decision-making capability. After the land, the air, the oceans, space and cyberspace, the battle is now for our minds3: welcome to the sixth war and the murky world of cognitive warfare. 

These conflicts affect both individuals and societies, since emotions are upstream of economics and politics: “emotions precede feelings” and are “the natural way for the brain and the mind to evaluate the environment both within and outside the organism”.4 So cognitive warfare affects all of us: as individuals, as a collective, and as consumers and investors. It is our emotions that shape the trade-offs and choices we make.

In these destabilisation campaigns, we are targets, victims and actors. And it would be a mistake to believe we can escape them, especially since one of the levers of influence is belief in one’s own self-immunity. The well-known parable talks about specks and beams in our eyes; psychologists now talk about cognitive bias and the irrationality5 of people who nevertheless see themselves as rational. The more a target downplays their fragility, the more susceptible to cognitive attack they will be. As Baudelaire wrote, “The devil’s finest trick is to persuade you that he doesn’t exist”. 6

Speaking of the devil, one of the ways cognitive manipulation works is rather diabolical: the stronger an act of violence is felt to be, the more we tend to talk about it. Analysis of Twitter posts has shown that each moral-emotional word a tweet contains increases its likelihood of being retweeted by 17%.7 Similarly, feelings of surprise or disgust are enough to make a post go viral. On top of this, algorithmic sorting of information8 increases the visibility of violent messages. In fact, the greater the violence, the stronger the emotion, and the more powerful the mechanics of cognitive bias. Moreover, our tolerance for violence varies depending on the sociopolitical situation and the era we live in: this is one of the weaknesses of our modern societies, habituated as we are to abundance and peace.

Another of the traps into which cognitive warfare lures us is that of confusing causes with consequences. Following Max Weber’s advice, consider two abstract ideal types of society. In the first, people tend to trust each other and institutions; in the second, a lack of trust leads to polarisation, which turns other people into enemies with whom no compromise is possible. It is in this second type of society that cognitive attacks are particularly effective. Make no mistake: emotional warfare doesn’t create polarisation, it increases it. The reason emotional warfare is so powerful in the West is that western countries have entered into an age of distrust.9 

The crisis of democracy, the crisis of confidence, political polarisation and cognitive warfare are all linked, then, and it is our own flaws that hostile political operators exploit. For example, Israel has fallen into a trap laid by Hamas in response what Professor Dani Filc has described as the post-populism of Benjamin Netanyahu10 (similar to that of Viktor Orbán), shored up by a three-tier strategy of economic neoliberalism, authoritarianism and conservative nationalism. According to sociologist Eva Illouz, this post-populism is fuelled by four types of emotion.11 The first is fear, which legitimises authoritarianism. Then come disgust and resentment, which underpin conservative nationalism. Finally, all of this is mixed with a “carefully cultivated love for one’s country”. Illouz also contends that these same kinds of emotional factors contribute to Donald Trump’s popularity12.

Finally, cognitive warfare attacks not just our emotions but also our doubts and qualms, keeping us frozen in a state in which we find it difficult to react. This may be an old strategic tactic but it is increasingly formidable in a world of ever-increasing complexity and shocks. At the end of the Cold War, the US army even came up with an acronym, VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity), to denote an age in which consensus and certainty are faltering. Indeed, today’s cognitive landscape is radically different from that of the Cold War. “Ideologies are less pervasive, beliefs more diversified. […] We have entered into a period of multiple engagements characterised by a tolerance for causal ambiguity”13. In fact, this cognitive misalignment is the perfect mental mirror image of geopolitical fragmentation.   

In The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera intuited this time of ambiguity: post-modernity, he wrote, would be a time of “terminal paradoxes” in which many truths previously considered absolute could well come to be seen as relative. This contemporary ambiguity now affects all of us, creating a sense of unease. And this is what emotional warfare taps into: our difficulty in facing up to a reality that has become “systemic, hybrid, global, liquid or hazy”.14 


1- Joseph S. Nye, Power in the Global Information Age, From Realism to Globalization, Routledge, 2004

2- Antonio Gramsci, Cahiers de prison, Tome 1, Cahier 3 (1930), Gallimard, 1996, p. 282

3- B. Claverie, What Is Cognition? Cognitive Warfare: The Future of Cognitive Dominance, NATO, 2022

4- A. R. Damasio, Spinoza avait raison : joie et tristesse, le cerveau des émotions, Odile Jacob, 2005.

5- D. Kahneman, Système 1, système 2 : les deux vitesses de la pensée, Poche, 2016.

6- Baudelaire, Le Spleen de Paris, 1862  

7- Brady et al., “Emotion shapes the diffusion of moralized content in social networks”, Academy of Sciences, 2017.

8- 70% des vidéos sur YouTube sont prescrites par l’algorithme. Voir Rapport Bronner : Les Lumières à l’ère numérique, 2022

9- Voir E. Laurent, L’économie de la confiance, La Découverte, 2019 « La transition numérique façonne des « sociétés de l’intermittence, dans lesquelles la continuité des rapports humains devient problématique », p. 29 

10- Dani Filc, The Political Right in Israel: Different faces of Jewish populism, Routledge, 2009

11- Eva Illouz, Les émotions contre la démocratie, Premier Parallèle, 2022

12- R. Igielnik, Trump Support Remains Unmoved by Investigations, Poll Finds, The New York Times, 22 septembre 2022

13- Ibid

14- S. Chassat, Complexité. Critique d’une idéologie contemporaine, Fondapol, juin 2023

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