2021 Research Initiative Brief: NIM

Researchers, scientists, and concerned citizens are increasingly recognizing the sociological and national security dangers associated with being exposed to an overwhelming volume of dissonant information, contributing to an increasingly hostile public discourse, reduced efficacy in research production, and a general decline in social cohesion and institutional trust. The average American spends 11 hours per day interacting with electronic media, viewing thousands of content objects and between four and ten thousand targeted advertisements, many of which are disguised as informative content. More than half of Americans consume this content on applications that were designed for the optimization of dwell-time and advertising revenue rather than the curation and compression of news and information. A well meaning individual of average or better intelligence, for example, searching the internet for information to develop an opinion on COVID-19 related topics will find an endless stream of potentially relevant and contradicting information from both valid sources and those which present troublingly false content and unfounded assertions. With 6,000 scientific articles being published daily and inadequate tools for aggregation and distinction, scientists and researchers are also being affected by these circumstances. This situation has been dubbed an “Infodemic” by the World Health Organization.

When the brain cannot reduce the complexity of the environment, it reduces the complexity of the strategy it uses to make sense of it. 20 years of well-reproduced research on “Cognitive Load” and “Sensemaking”, the process by which intelligent systems produce meaning to facilitate action, suggests that when an individual is exposed to potentially relevant, contradicting information at a rate inconsistent with the time and effort required to integrate and does not have access to appropriate tools, a trusted network of experts, or domain-specific training, they may withdraw from their role in the environment or experience anxiety and reduction in ability to manage stress, set priorities, make decisions, and detect logical inconsistency. To circumvent the stress of “cognitive overload”, the brain uses strategies such as:

  1. compressing and filtering with an inappropriate emphasis on and abstraction of threat detection, resulting in paranoia and vulnerability to conspiracy theories
  2. maintaining continuous partial attention, preventing integration of information and maintenance of focus,
  3. or compressing and filtering on a basis of narrative identity, resulting in tribalism and vulnerability to extremist ideology and cults of personality. 

At best, these strategies create the potential for redundant analysis, wasted time, reduced work performance, and “role withdrawal” or apathy, at worst, they contribute to a false-sense of knowing and vulnerability to narrative warfare and social engineering, contributing to a free-fall in the institutional trust required to maintain social cohesion.

Sensemaking is becoming dysfunctional, tribal, siloed, and vulnerable to threat actors and opportunists. Contemporary research on knowledge management suggests that there are measurable dimensions of an information environment that affect the cognitive load of its users and that the environment can be improved across these dimensions with modern techniques, data standards, and affordances. However, these techniques are not yet developed enough to inform reliably effective interventions or to inform the architecture of the standards, therefore related affordances are not yet present in tools in common usage. In the interest of U.S. election and national security as well as international stability, interventions have been recommended in order to develop and deploy new tools and programs for facilitating the development and stewardship of a more trustworthy, interoperable, and accessible information environment. 

“It is not satisfactory to simply say that all those who do evil acts are evil. It has a beginning, nearly always with believing falsities and absurdities.” - Garry Kasparov

To this end, COGSEC’s 2021 research initiatives will be centered around “Narrative Information Management”, how we track, detect, develop, compress, and store information about narrative and memetic content. It will focus on exploring the domains of intelligence analysis, commercial intelligence, and sensemaking in a team and project context, building on the research developed from COGSEC’s 2020 research initiative on remote team performance. The goal will be to consider the insights found in the exploration of these and other relevant domains to work toward the development of tools that help individuals and teams compress and manage information. 

We are actively seeking collaborators in topics related to:

Information Chain-of-Custody
  1. Blockchain for Chain of Custody of Information and Governance
  2. Bibliometrics and Reference Data Management
  3. Data standardization: Geospatial, Physiological, Education/Competency Data
Memes & Online Culture 
  1. Large-scale Natural Language Processing
  2. Argument and Narrative Mapping
  3. Platform and User experience design
Organizational Sense-making
  1. Cybernetics and AI Facilitation
  2. Knowledge Management Systems
  3. Organizational Psychology, especially where it relates to Rapidly Assembled Remote Teams
  4. Gamification and Incentivisation of Heuristic Discovery and Consensus
  1. Narrative and Memetic Warfare
  2. Gray-zone and Peer-adversary Persuasion Campaign Detection and Deterrence

Given our focus on interdisciplinary research, please do not hesitate to respond to calls for collaboration if you are interested in these topics or contributing to solutions but are not specialized in the mentioned domains.