and Education Forum, was founded as a response to a call to action in a 2017 testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee's Subcommittee on Cybersecurity by Rand Waltzman. The testimony, titled “The Weaponization of Information”, detailed complex, psycho-social threats in the information environment, which are exacerbated by state actors and social media. The testimony concluded by recommending a commitment to national cognitive security, it asked that a nongovernmental "center for cognitive security" be formed to "bring together experts working in areas such as cognitive science, computer science, engineering, social science, security, marketing, political campaigning, public policy, and psychology to develop a theoretical as well as an applied engineering methodology for managing the full spectrum of information environment security issues.”
In the perceived absence of action on the recommendation, COGSEC was formed to answer this call and its members have since endeavored to work on projects and build relationships with members of organizations which were well positioned to contribute to solutions and our understanding of the problems outlined in Waltzman’s testimony and elsewhere. This work and relationship building was done with the belief that understanding the problems underneath the threats in the information environment would be a necessary precursor to solutions and that pedagogy and sensemaking would be the domains which would be most likely to yield the insights necessary to both understand these threats and design reliable solutions.
Each year, COGSEC sets out to achieve a particular research initiative and actively seeks out collaborators to participate in interdisciplinary teams. Please see our
COGSEC was founded during a period of extreme political volatility where a dog-whistle focused culture generating long-tail affiliation risk was preventing very basic cooperation. COGSEC does not require or seek any formal affiliation or formal membership - only provisional mission alignment. This allows productive work to be done among individuals with disparate backgrounds (ideological and otherwise). Similarly, COGSEC does not require attribution in public materials - we will assist where we can where we share common interest, especially where the focus is on individual, team, and organizational resilience facilitated by tools, processes, shared situational awareness, and education. To be a member of the COGSEC community, you need only be available, capable, and willing to contribute to Cognitive Security related initiatives, and we will support directly, or indirectly, as much as we can. To this end, the Cognitive Security and Education Forum is less an industry association, and more a router for a network of individuals working with communities of practice and other organizations to help develop the next generation of knowledge management and education technologies - and to support research efforts which contribute to these goals.
Authorship or other forms of contribution under a COGSEC program does not necessarily represent or constitute (i) an endorsement of any other hosted materials, (ii) a formal affiliation with any associated organizations or communities or COGSEC itself, or (iii) contact or association with any other contributor or author, even where they are marked as contributors or authors on the same materials.
History and Background
The Cognitive Security and Education Forum, or COGSEC, was (informally) founded in 2018 following the development of proprietary research by RJ Cordes intended to assist education technology companies in addressing national education interests in the United States. This work revealed that there were more important things at stake than market opportunities - specifically, that the state of the US education system and information infrastructure had become a national security concern. Americans were argued to be in a constant state of cognitive overload, with few information management tools or alternatives to social media available for those attempting to navigate. This was cast as a whole-of-society social engineering threat, wherein domestic and foreign actors, activist organizations, advertisers, and opportunists, with both good and bad intentions, are simultaneously targeting large swathes of the population - generating anxiety, conflict, and a cascade of financial, health, and social risks.
The term Cognitive Security was adopted as an umbrella term for study of these risks, following the finding of a 2017 testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee's Subcommittee on Cybersecurity by Rand Waltzman titled “The Weaponization of Information: The Need for Cognitive Security”. This testimony detailed complex, psycho-social threats in the information environment which were exacerbated by state actors and social media. The testimony concluded by recommending a commitment to national cognitive security, and asked that a nongovernmental "center for cognitive security" be formed to "bring together experts working in areas such as cognitive science, computer science, engineering, social science, security, marketing, political campaigning, public policy, and psychology to develop a theoretical as well as an applied engineering methodology for managing the full spectrum of information environment security issues.”
While it was later found that other nascent and extant organizations (including one affiliated with Waltzman) were working on this issue at the time, as citizens and academics it was not immediately clear that initiative had been taken to found such a center. So in 2018, RJ Cordes independently decided to take the initiative to add some formalization to a loose collection of interested parties by registering the cogsec.org domain name and facilitating the selection of a logo.
The Athenian owl was chosen as the primary emblem of COGSEC on the basis that it represented to us the notion that a nation with a representative government earns its security through wisdom, pragmatism balanced by principles, and clarity in thought and communication, rather than by command and by force. It was apparent, even in very early stages, that forceful and adversarial top-down methods of information control would not only fail to resolve the information issues of the day, but would come at a perilously steep price: the principles at the foundations of our society and the overwhelmingly high potential for blowback. The owl sits atop an open book, as accessibility of knowledge through education and knowledge/information management tools was seen as the foundation for a path forward.
Within a few months of its formation, given the political atmosphere of that time, most interactions had turned into implicit and explicit pressures to take stances in the n-dimensional minefield of left-right, Pro/Anti US, Government, Censorship, Capitalism, DEI, ESG, and Religious dynamics in both public discourse and research agenda setting. Despite these pressures, it was found that in every interaction there was something to learn - and that the potential for learning at the intersection between parties was far greater, because it was so often avoided and so fraught with reputation risk.
Following success on early research projects (and learning experiences with grants) in 2019 with Daniel Friedman, it was found that a focus on provisional mission alignment within provisional interorganizational teams allowed for surprising efficiency without carrying as much baggage or potential for capture. Early projects between Daniel and RJ led to Daniel becoming an honorary cofounder (by merit of interest, enthusiasm, and impact) and the establishment of standards for facilitating provisional teams formed between organizations (i.e., emergent teams). Over the following years, COGSEC evolved into a productive vehicle for helping teams work on Cognitive Security related problems and for assisting communities of practice and other organizations with team facilitation and communication. To this end it was decided to (i) avoid advertising, direct promotion, and social media, (ii) to reduce focus on affiliation where appropriate, (iii) to abandon plans for any formal membership model, and (iv) focus on bridging ideological and theoretical silos through interdisciplinary research.
Over this time, we’ve learned an incredible amount and had the opportunity to contribute to a number of external initiatives. Where alignment was found, we were often invited to contribute work to research incubators and standards setting initiatives within government and standards setting bodies on education technology as well as “gray zone warfare” topics related to cognitive security. RJ was primarily the representative on these initiatives and was also invited to participate in external fellowships which were well aligned at the time. As the world became more volatile, so too did mission alignment and the trade offs of managing neutrality - especially given that we endeavor to make all products of facilitated collaborations public, open-source, and available for free. COGSEC’s annual initiative in 2023 thus ended with a redoubled commitment to the development of information infrastructure, tools, frameworks, and systems which contribute to interoperability and enable citizens and communities to better manage their own data, improve situational awareness, and measure and monitor complex dynamics in their respective information ecosystems.
We continue our work with more transparency regarding the following:
We are a small organization, funded out of pocket by its citizen organizers, attempting to serve our communities by facilitating respectful and productive collaboration in a relatively adversarial and sometimes hostile information environment. The people who collaborate on COGSEC initiatives are doing so as individuals in emergent provisional teams, through mostly asynchronous contributions.
We will continue to hold fast to the requirement that our research, tools, and frameworks are available to citizens and communities - not just companies or governments. This is because we believe wholeheartedly that clarity in thought and communication at the level discourse requires clarity in thought and communication at the level of individual citizens - and to achieve this, situational awareness is paramount. Certainly, we intend that the tools and frameworks we develop and recommend to reduce noise in the information environment, however we want individuals and communities to be better equipped to decide for themselves what constitutes noise and what constitutes signal, what constitutes a valid vulnerability or a remedy, and how to go about sharing or not sharing information.
COGSEC is a nonpolitical, nonpartisan organization. While past collaborations have featured discussions of political belief, the focus is instead on the role of narrative in sensemaking generally.
We still aim to provide collaboration and education opportunities to students, professionals, and academics within the US and internationally. Due to the number (and persistence) of bot, sockpuppet, and phishing reach outs, please understand that while we may be slow to respond, interest in citizen participation has not decreased.
COGSEC will continue to facilitate research related to red team and wargaming aspects of cognitive security, however we will not engage in social engineering or influence campaigns on the public. We focus on education on and defense against / resilience to such activities, not on adversarial implementation. To this end, wherever we have contributed or contribute to writing on these topics, we have and will continue to make resulting products available for free to ensure that people have the opportunity to understand how those who engage in narrative campaigns (e.g., advertising, influence operations) think and operate, and to ensure that those who engage in narrative campaigns and public relations are well informed of the related risks - most especially, the potential for blowback.
We believe that all work on cognitive science in the context of social engineering represents potential memetic gain-of-function research, but also believe that performing it in the dark comes with worse consequences. We have argued that neutral information sharing infrastructure may be part of the answer to ending a “red queen” dynamic within research on cognitive security.
COGSEC continues to endeavor to publish all work for free under an open source license - and further, to continue to publish the project documentation about the “why, how, and what” of those works as well. We hope that those who have read our past work will find that our projects are relatively unambiguous about scope and intent, and that we have written extensively on how to make project documentation about such work unambiguous.
If you’d like to help, COGSEC has and will always be a volunteer effort, providing a vehicle for people of all walks of life to collaborate and find collaborators for tool development, research, and impact. Reach out any time.