“What if, immediately before spreading polarizing social media posts, our adversaries flashed subliminal images known to induce a type of anxiety called ‘state anxiety’? Evidence suggests people would perceive those posts in a more emotional way. Those images could, in turn, influence their voting behavior,” said Dr. Jay Heslen, an expert in intelligence and cybersecurity policy and assistant professor of political science with a joint appointment in the Katherine Reese Pamplin College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences and the School of Computer and Cyber Sciences at Augusta University. “Successfully manipulating the cognition of a few thousand people in order to influence their perception of events could be enough to change the result of an election.”
Heslen’s current research project focuses on whether exposure to certain visuals or sounds, including subliminal prompts, can induce a negative emotional arousal in people. He’s interested in learning whether that emotional state, called state anxiety, can then influence behavior in a specific, predefined way — a concept he calls neurocognitive hacking.
Although research using subliminal prompts is not new and has had mixed results, Heslen’s approach is novel. He uses a specific kind of visuals previously shown to trigger people’s unconscious discriminatory behaviors toward outsiders.
“Neurocognitive hacking could potentially be used as a weapon in cyberwarfare,” said Heslen, who worked as an intelligence officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency and the United States Air Force for more than 20 years, specializing in combatting terrorism, counterintelligence and strategic cyber intelligence. “We need to study these capabilities not only for our own understanding but to create sound policies and countermeasures to defend ourselves against others who may use them on us.”
With 68 percent of Americans on Facebook and 73 percent on YouTube, according to another Pew Research Center survey, neurocognitive hacking could be a national security problem, Heslen said.
“As we advance our understanding of the brain and its processes, including how to manipulate it, we will need to provide neurocognitive cybersecurity to people who use information and communication technologies,” Heslen said. “This will be especially true as we spend more time in virtual worlds.”
Heslen is a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force Reserve and has served in military operations on four continents to include humanitarian relief operations in Mozambique and South Africa as well as an operational tour in Afghanistan. In his capacity as a reservist, he is currently assigned to the National Intelligence University