Identity Hacking – Why Working With Our Most Exploitable Operating System – our Identity System – is Critical to Safeguarding Peaceful Democratic Society


by Bruce White

  • Global economic growth, access to education and technological innovation have not solved problems such as polarization, conflict, terrorism, persecution, and increasing social division.
  • These and other related problems are rooted in identity. Therefore identity must be understood and utilized as a means to help solve these challenges.
  • Identity is a psychological and social Operating System deeply embedded in our human condition.
  • The Identity System operates in a specific, understandable way – advocating for our everyday needs and helping us to meet and adapt to life’s challenges.
  • As in any system, the Identity System has vulnerabilities that can be exploited by malicious hackers. Propagandists are versatile Identity Hackers, exploiting the system to their benefit.
  • The best way to counter Identity Hacking is to prevent it through understanding and shoring up vulnerabilities. It is also often possible to “restore” a hacked Identity System with the right approach.

Despite a century of global economic growth, improved access to education and incredible technological development, it seems that many of our historic problems endure. Indeed, several of these problems – polarizationpopulismterrorismpersecution of minorities and economic and social division – seem to be getting worse.

What are we missing?  Was our assumption that prosperity, education and technology would set humanity on course for peace and harmony misguided? Or are we overlooking something?

Here I argue the case that we continue to be largely ignorant of the power and purpose of one of humanity’s most enduring and elemental Operating Systems – Identity.

Identity’s place at the heart of psychological and social life continues to provide us with fantastic opportunities to build on our achievements. But it remains the most widely exploited and maliciously corruptible of our human faculties.

Identity, our inbuilt advocate

In popular usage, ‘identity’ refers to a self-concept and/or the membership of a group that  exhibits certain known traits or properties. A more technical definition of identity is that it is a system that manages our representation of ourselves. Examined more closely, self-representation is a complex and volatile system within which individuals struggle to find versions of themselves that can get them through life’s struggles and inequalities with dignity. 

Indeed, if one system comes to act in our defence during times of real or perceived inequality, it is our system of self-representation or identity.

Identity is our inbuilt advocate. It is a system that is so embedded in our human condition that it often takes priority over all thought and action, particularly at points in time when we perceive or feel the highest degrees of threat and fear. Not unlike the fight or flight response, identity is a timeless, integral part of our human condition.

Identity is always with us, serving our day-to-day needs – representing us in the world so that, amongst other things, we can build and experience a sense of place and belonging, validity and meaning, and self-esteem and safety.

Just like any system, identity has conditions and rules which govern how it operates. Its main job is to create a convincing portrayal of a moral universe in which we fight for equality, justice and dignity. But, as identity is with us every moment of every day, it has to do this across many different settings.

Got a work colleague who is boastful and self-absorbed? It is the identity system that will compel you to bring them down a peg or two so that you can be the enforcer of a world in which people are all equal, and no one should get above themselves. Has a random stranger in a bar made a negative off-hand comment about your religion or belief system? That emotion that swells up in you does so because the identity system sees a threat to your very existence and is priming you to defend yourself and your group.

Identity truly is a wonderfully, tireless, 24/7 advocate that works for us our whole lives. As it works, our identity system snatches images and concepts from the world around us in order to generate our different moral universes and positions within them. It constantly switches  between positions and universes as it responds to our deep needs to adapt to the situation and feel OK, whatever the context we find ourselves in.

Hacking the system

Despite its incredible value as a tireless fighter for our universal needs, under certain conditions the identity system can be manipulated to cause great harm. Instead of being an advocate acting on our behalf across the various contexts of our lives, the system can become locked into a moral universe where enemies are perceived to be all around us and we are put in a constant state of alertness to danger and threat.

While this might be a useful state to be in if we are choosing to fight genuine oppression or persecution, it becomes a critical system malfunction if the condition is created with malicious intent – such as by an individual wishing to gain control or power over others.

As with any operating system, identity is vulnerable to hacks and viruses that “trick” it into thinking the code it is receiving is genuine and must be operated upon. Processing this malicious code results in the operating system unwittingly running instructions that put it into a state of malfunction, potentially destroying it and other systems around it.

“Identity hacking” works in just this way. To explain this, let’s go one level deeper in understanding the workings of the identity operating system under “normal” conditions:

Underneath the fabric of our everyday life lies a network of images and meanings and associations – a cultural lexicon or “meaning network”. As each of us struggles to fulfil our human needs, succeed, thrive and survive, we create versions of ourselves using these images. These versions typically make us the heroes of a moral universe and define the “enemies” (or simply “others”) as villains or anti-heroes. When functioning normally, the self-representation system constantly shifts positions as we respond to the differing needs and contexts of the moment, calling into operation different configurations of “me/us” and “not me/them”. In this normal state, we are constantly switching positions. Therefore no single version of ourselves takes up too much of our energy or, consequently, results in a determined or fixated focus on the “other”, not-like-us, people/tribe.

So how can such an adaptable system become vulnerable to a virus attack? Firstly, the fact that the advocator system is programmed to respond to several core human needs represents its initial vulnerability. If we can trigger these needs, we can force the system to respond in specific ways.

Let’s take the need to be free from fear and suffering as an example. Suppose we can produce images and ideas that threaten a peaceful or comfortable existence. In that case, we can force the advocator to defend our position – i.e. to work to return us to a place where we are free from the fear and suffering that has just been introduced.

Practically, we see such threats being promoted in propaganda which attempts to depict an outside group as potentially dangerous. Examples are many but may include economic threats such as “them” taking “our” jobs or attempting to steal or remove other properties and resources from our in-group. Physical threats are also common, such as the idea that this other group wants to attack or destroy “our” family, religion, culture, race, or group.

If done in a way that resonates with the target audience, the promotion of these threats can introduce the malignant hacking code into the advocator system. As the advocator system snatches the new pieces of cultural code from the modified meaning network (new associations between “enemy groups” or individuals and how they are dangerous), it pulls in information that triggers specific needs. This triggering, in turn, puts the system in a state where it is looking to respond to, “equalize” and advocate on behalf of “me/us” – the endangered entity.

The advocator system now feels it must act urgently to address the imminent threat before returning to normal dynamic functioning. Instead of switching across and between different identity positions, the system enters a kind of paralysis. It can only see and express one version of itself – one moral universe with fixed binary versions of itself (me or us) and others (dangerous/threatening others) around it. A destructive loop is thus created.

In this exploited state, the identity system is now effectively advocating for the propagandist rather than the unique individual  The “hacker” now determines how the individual thinks and acts, and can effectively wreak havoc on different scales, ranging from extorting money and labour to political power grabs, military mobilization, genocidal violence and war.

Restoring a hacked identity 

As with a computer hack, the best way to counter identity hacking is to protect the system in the first place. In the world of computers this is achieved with software which understands what the system’s vulnerabilities are. It requires far less energy and resources to protect a system than it does to repair and undo the damage done by a successful hack into that system.

Identity-hacking protection, like anti-virus software, learns from the viruses that have been developed in the past and seeks to plug the holes in the system that were exploited. In identity terms, effective-hacking protection requires understanding how parts of a meaning network have been targeted for manipulation and what kind of manipulations have been attempted.

For example, attempts made to create new associations between a minority group and some notions of imminent threat of danger would be researched and catalogued in detail. Protective countermeasures would then focus on ensuring that that minority group’s place in the network had many neutral and positive associations that were strongly featured and promoted.

Promotion of the counter strategies can be achieved through educational and messaging/storytelling content delivered through multiple platforms, such as on social media, in schools, in theatre, and in public discourse and PSAs.

Getting ahead of the game and protecting identities from hacking is critical to avoiding the consequent damage and destruction that follows a destructive hack. 

But what if we are too late and we are dealing with a hacked identity that threatens the rights of others? Is restoration even possible, and if so, how is it achieved?

While it is important to state that not every hacked identity is recoverable (nor necessarily impinges on the rights of others), many are. In operating system terms, sometimes the damage done is so great that the device is simply not recoverable, while in others, what is required is a hard reset to “factory settings”.

Fortunately, a return to factory settings – that state where the identity system is dynamically adjusting and switching normally – is often possible. Still, it requires understanding the extent and nature of the identity hack to work.

It is important to remember that any successful hack has appealed to a core internal need through a manipulation of cultural meanings in the network. The system feels it is engaged in a self-protective loop.

A hard reset, therefore, not does not require a hard approach. Aggressive challenging of the system’s configuration – the narratives and concepts within which it is locked – will only serve to strengthen its sense of needing to protect itself. 

Instead, the destructive loop must be understood from the inside. This means gaining a precise understanding of the way the meaning network has been manipulated and how this manipulation has targeted and triggered the individual’s core needs.

Once the original hack has been understood, supplying its targeted needs with alternative – but equally or more fulfilling – options can be the focus of the restoration.

Understanding how to provide these options through restoring the original configurations of the meaning network is the means by which this can be achieved. This process requires careful attention to the detail of the concepts that will be regenerated and the potential impact on the individual. It is also critical to maintain an ethical approach which constantly manages the risk of backlash – the danger that the individual will respond negatively to the approach and harden their position.

Working with our Operating System, not against it

Many problems in the world persist due to identity hacking. Across mental health and well-being, crime and prejudice, governance, corruption and disinformation, social and political division and conflict, human rights abuses and violent war and conflict, the stakes can be as profound as the very survival and prosperity of our species. Not implementing intelligent, sustainable, ethical and repeatable protection and restoration solutions to identity hacking is a form of negligent self-destruction.

Facing identity-based problems requires understanding the identity system and how its vulnerabilities can be exploited and repaired. Not understanding how the operating system functions and simply trying to force it to take on alternative programs while it is in its malfunctioning state is likely to be ineffective at best and cause system-wide failure in a worst-case scenario. For better or worse, no version of ourselves exists without our identity system producing it.

If we want a perennial solution to our perennial problems, we need to engineer our understanding of the identity system into our solutions, not hope for some kind of systemwide “upgrade” that will be performed automatically through increased access to education, wealth, or technological innovation. It is perhaps unfortunate that the identity system is not “upgradable” in this way; it simply functions in the way that it does, and will always do so.

As in the world of computing, there are ways that good hackers can help solve problems that bad hackers create. Combining the technical skills of protecting our identities from malicious code and restoring those compromised is complex. But blending analysis from the human sciences with compelling storytelling, the divisive propagandist can be effectively outcompeted by skilled and motivated practitioners from sectors such as education, social work, activism, conflict transformation, governance, human rights, climate change and public health.

A parallel challenge for us all is maintaining our faith in humanity in the face of widespread division and polarization. Understanding the nature of our most exploitable OS – that all identity positions are born from common human needs to attain and maintain dignity, equality, freedom from fear, suffering and deprivation – is critical.

But we must also not give way to false assumptions and hopes – such as the notion that improved literacy, health, education, or technology necessarily leads to the creation or preservation of peaceful democratic societies. We must focus instead on ensuring that, alongside all of these critical features of our human development, all people have the opportunity to meet their everyday psychological and social needs through positive and empowering self-representations.

With a greater understanding of our most exploitable human system, it becomes possible to act with targeted effectiveness – to intelligently build positive and empowering narratives that foster inclusive notions of who it is that we are and protect these against exploits.

Rolling up our sleeves and living up to the capacities we have to solve our problems becomes our mission. If we can rise to this challenge, our unwittingly self-destructive present will be consigned to a past where we simply did not quite grasp the positive and negative power of identity.

Dr. Bruce White is anthropologist, founder and executive director of the Organization for Identity and Cultural Development (OICD).