Chinese Observations on the Role and Impact of Social Media in Cognitive Warfare

“Cognitive warfare through social media can directly interfere with relevant government decisions and influence the direction of the war.”

Drawing lessons from the war in Ukraine, Chinese military strategists see social media as a highly effective tool in both warfare and politics.  The accompanying excerpted article published in the nationalistic-leaning Chinese daily Huanqui Shibao notes that cognitive warfare is playing a historic role in shaping the war, which is the first time combatants have incorporated it into a large-scale physical conflict.  The author notes that cognitive warfare tactics such as “deepfakes” and “accelerationism” over social media deliberately manipulated the world’s emotions and collective consciousness to sway public opinion and exacerbate polarization.  He notes that social media has elevated the role and effectiveness of cognitive warfare to new heights.  It has interfered with government decisions and influenced the direction of the war.

According to the author, cognitive warfare extends beyond propaganda and psychological warfare.  It can be carried out in conjunction with both the physical and information domains.  It can be used in wartime or peacetime and on a daily basis.  It can be waged through public diplomacy, academic exchanges, culture and art, or simply hidden in seemingly innocuous areas such as social media.  The author also describes how cognitive warfare has evolved through technological advances.  The digital technology available during the 1991 Gulf War allowed round-the-clock, real-time televised coverage of wartime events as they unfolded.  This play-by-play coverage had a psychological impact on the entire world, which helped to shape the narrative, but not the outcome, of the war.  Three decades later social media is seen as a weapon in the Ukraine conflict.


Sun Jiashan, “俄乌冲突中认知战对我们的启示 (What Cognitive Warfare in the Russia-Ukraine Conflict Teaches Us),” Global Times (daily newspaper known for its nationalistic take on world affairs), 10 March 2022.

The role and effectiveness of cognitive warfare based on social media in the Russia-Ukraine war has reached new historical heights since the 1991 Gulf War.

More than 30 years have passed since the 1991 Gulf War, but we still have a clear visual image of it because, for the first time in history, television media had followed it every step. The information technology that allowed round the clock digital broadcasting of modern warfare by the American television media had a great psychological impact on the entire world.

The 1991 Gulf War, despite near-live digital broadcasting of the war, (however), only offered a narrative of the war and had no direct impact on the war itself. The biggest difference between the role and effectiveness of the 1991 Gulf War and the Russia-Ukraine conflict is that the advent of social media has affected the media and directly impacting the war. Whether it was the so-called “Ghost of Kyiv,” in which it was eventually revealed that footage had been taken from an air combat simulation game at the beginning of the conflict… or the spreading of rumors such as the Nuclear leak of the Zaporozhye nuclear plant… “deepfake,” “accelerationism,” and other cognitive warfare tactics, which can impact cognition through social media, are now being applied in large-scale situations over the course of the war.

…cognitive warfare can no longer be simply seen as propaganda warfare and psychological warfare (as it was previously)…. Cognitive warfare through social media can directly interfere with relevant government decisions and influence the direction of the war. This has been a historical wake-up call for us by the Russia-Ukraine conflict.