Social media is the new weapon in the war of perceptions
In an era of uncertain warfare, or warfare in the grey zone, the boundaries are blurred. Instead of an all-out war, conflict is waged in different forms by both state and non-state actors. Wars between nations are likely to be skirmishes or limited conflict. Insurgency and Low Intensity Conflict Operations (LICO) do not have timelines, or even clear-cut winners or losers.
In today’s conflict, the victor may be the one who has succeeded in propagating his narrative and created the perception of victory. In this battle of perception, there is no tool more effective than social media. Today there are 2.2 billion internet users — over a fourth of the world’s population. Facebook has more users than the entire population of China, making it the single most populous community in the world. Over one billion posts and tweets and over 300 million hours of video are downloaded daily. The most common instrument worldwide is the mobile phone which provides instantaneous news, communication and information and is held by over a third of the world’s population.
The mass appeal and instant reach of social media enables it to be used or misused alike. How security forces use this medium effectively and prevent its misuse by adversaries is one of the major challenges facing us today.
Social Media and the Arab Spring
The power of social media was first visible in the Arab Spring. Here, social media platforms caused an uprising that galvanised the population of an entire region. The revolution began when a video of the self-immolation of a fruit-seller Mohammed Bouaziz in Tunisia went viral over Facebook and YouTube, sparking nationwide protests. The revolution transcended borders through social media and soon reached Egypt, Libya, Somalia, Saudi, Yemen, Syria and other Arab states. Calls to overthrow leaders arose spontaneously and went viral on social media networks. The first ‘Facebook Strike’ — a gathering of over 70,000 people in Tahrir Square in Cairo, was engineered almost completely on Maktoot and Mazzika — the Egyptian version of Facebook.
The mobile phone was the most powerful weapon in this battle. It tweeted, passed messages, sent photos and videos on social media platforms with real-time updates. Google maps flagged the locations of demonstrations and guided protestors to the sites, also informing them of the whereabouts of security forces. The mass movement generated on social media resulted in the deposing of three Presidents, the killing of another and the rise of a movement across the Arab world. It is no surprise that the leaderless uprising of the Arab Spring is often called the ‘Facebook Revolution’.
Use of Social Media on the Battlefield
The immense potential of social media was first exploited by militaries during the Russian–Georgia War of 2008. Russia used social media platforms to mobilise their supporters within Georgia and created a perception of righteousness, when they invaded Georgia. However, it was in the Israel–Hamas War of 2012, that social media became both a weapon and an arena for the conflict.
Israel had lost the battle of perception to the Hezbollah in their invasion of Lebanon in 2006 and had earned widespread condemnation. When they launched Op ‘Pillar of Defence’ in the Gaza Strip in 2012 they now used social media to convey its viewpoints to the world community. It was the first war to be launched on Twitter when the official Twitter handle of the Israeli Defense Forces, #IDFSpokesperson, announced, ‘The IDF has begun a widespread campaign on terror sites and operatives in the Gaza Strip…’ It used Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and virtually every other social media platform to launch a barrage of blogs, tweets and photos which included real time information about the progress of operations, information about the killing of Hamas operatives and warnings to civilians to leave an area of an impending strike. They even set up a ‘Social Media War Room’ where around 400 tech savvy students kept up a constant stream of information that reached 21 million people in 13 languages across 62 countries. This flow of information shaped perception before the battle, throughout the war and after. They succeeded in convincing the world of the righteousness of their cause and projected the battle as one essential for Israel’s defence, in spite of immense casualties to civilians.
The Russo-Ukraine conflict of 2015 again saw social media play a large role. It also exposed the perils of using social media incorrectly. Russian soldiers posted selfies of themselves operating inside Ukraine, thus exposing Russian involvement (which the government had denied). Troops from both sides used mobile phones to pass messages and photos from the front lines — which often gave away their positions if a photo included a landmark, or if the geo-tagging services of the instrument were on. Soldiers often gave away revealing, real time information which could be utilised by the enemy. These are situations that could be faced by our own army in subsequent conflicts, especially now that virtually every soldier has his own mobile and the use of social media is rampant.
Waging Jihad on Twitter
The organisation that has harnessed social media optimally is the Islamic State (IS). Their use of social media enabled it to garner more visibility and support than any other militant organisation in the world.
The IS moved beyond the traditional forums of closed chat rooms to platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube where they could reach a much wider audience. They remained dormant till the capture of Mosul in June 2015, and then immediately launched a record-breaking 40,000 tweets under the hashtag campaign #alleyes on ISIS. It was a digital blitzkrieg which got it instant recognition.
Their campaigns were a mix of marketing, recruiting, fund raising, motivational and even training videos that drew recruits from across the world and spawned a series of ‘lone wolf’ attacks. Some of their social media strategies were innovative. They developed a mobile app called ‘Fajr-al-Bashaer’ or ‘Dawn of Glad Tiding’ or more simply ‘Dawn’ as it came to be known. Anyone could download this app and then could send or receive messages or upload/ download information of ISIS fighting. Though the app was free, to sign up, you had to provide personal information such as the name, telephone number, address and email IDs which gave them a data bank of possible recruits and sympathisers who could be used later.
IS also developed a mobile based encryption software called Amn–al-Mujahid (Security for Mujahid) which allowed secure, encrypted chats between its members. Messages auto-destruct once read and are almost impossible to trace. Using this they conducted the horrific attacks on the Holey Artisan Café in Dhaka and the Easter Bombings in Sri Lanka. All the attackers were indoctrinated, trained and coordinated on social media with very little physical contact, making detection even more difficult.
This model is being replicated by other terrorist organisations such as al Qaida, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba as well. In India the use of social media to coordinate a major terrorist attack is in the realm of possibility.
Use by Security Forces
India has 243 million internet users, 350 million mobile users, with an internet penetration of 19 per cent and social media penetration of eight per cent. Over 100 million of its population has access to social media networks and its usage rises by 37 per cent every year. With such large scales, it obviously cannot be ignored, and its widespread use provides both a threat and a tool for security forces.
Social media has also given a new dimension to the Kashmir issue. The average age of the militant there is around 24, meaning they are part of a generation that has grown up using Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp. This new breed of militants uses social media to attract recruits, spread propaganda, and mobilise sympathisers to an encounter site or for a stone throwing protest. Even Burhan Wani attained his notoriety due to his widespread presence on social media. It helped give him a larger than life aura, and his death was skilfully exploited to create a wave of sympathy and stir sentiment.
It is significant that one of the measures taken by the government in the wake of the abrogation of Article 370 was a blanket ban on the social media networks. This step perhaps helped control the initial outpourings but has been carried on too far. The prolonged clampdown on social media networks in the Valley may now rebound and there may be greater hostility amongst the populace than before. Also, monitoring of social media groups and messages enabled security forces to gauge local mood and sentiment. That understanding of local perception is now denied to the intelligence agencies, and when the lid is opened, the outpourings may take us all by surprise.
The recent happenings in the country — the CAA, NPR, NRC issue and the subsequent protests, communal violence and even the Corona outbreak — have seen social media networks go into a tizzy. The free flow of information and misinformation can be both useful and dangerous as it can create wrong perceptions and provoke wrong actions. While social media cannot be curbed, measures can definitely be undertaken to prevent its misuse.
Data analysis can help. Computerised analysis and monitoring techniques will enable agencies to identify trends and home-in to potentially dangerous traffic and groups. Algorithms are now being developed to predict subsequent actions and act before they can take place. Yet, processing the vast volumes of data flowing across the networks is itself a major challenge.
The armed forces worldwide have caught on to the importance of social media. Virtually every military has its own dedicated social media cell. The US recently announced a Cyber Command with a Social Media Brigade whose role is ‘to win the social media battle against State and non-State actors.’ The UK has established a special brigade of ‘Facebook Warriors’ or ‘Twitter Troops’ which engages serving and retired military personnel, students and social media professionals, to get their message across. Interestingly, the brigade is named 77th Brigade after the famous Chindits Brigade, and also has the same formation sign. Like the original Chindits Brigade, this one too is designed ‘to strike the psyche of the enemy.’
India’s armed forces have their own organisations – the ADGPI for the Army, the Directorate of Media and Public Relations for the Air Force and the Media and Public Interaction Cell for the Navy – to operate their social media platforms. The ADGPI’s Facebook page and Twitter handle has significantly projected the image and activities of the Indian Army and has amongst the largest followings in India. Major activities, encounters, welfare measures, recruitment rallies and other information are covered thrice daily to provide a clear and real-time perspective. The air force and navy have their own handles and have successfully harnessed veterans and families to form WhatsApp groups to help the flow of information and to disseminate the correct narrative.
Yet, the three services operate their social media cells in isolation. Perhaps, with the establishment of the Chief of Defence Staff, there is a need for joint social media organisation for all three services. It could be on the lines of the Israeli, UK or US model incorporating serving and retired personnel, students and civilian experts and even professional social media and public relations agencies. That would enable us to present a cogent narrative and shape perception in the correct manner.
There is also need for a common social media policy, but unfortunately each service has its own guidelines. The navy, for instance, has banned the use of smartphones and social networks on ships and naval bases – a step which may not be sustainable for long. The army has a more nuanced policy which encourages the use of social media platforms for officers, men and their families, provided that it is used with ‘responsibility and accountability, keeping ethics and security guidelines in mind.’ In a nutshell, the policy says, ‘Act on social media as you would in uniform.’
Pakistan’s ISPR – the public relations arm of the ISI has been able to create a central narrative for its armed forces on social media. They are a step ahead and are linked to television and radio channels which they use effectively. They also produce and fund movies depicting the services; some of the notable ones being ‘Ghazi Shaheed’ and ‘Death before Disgrace’. During last year’s Balakot strike and the aerial duel that followed, it successfully presented its version of events quite effectively to the world community and the battle of perception went to them. If India had one central social media agency of all three services, with intelligence and other security agencies amalgamated as well, a clearer presentation of our own position could have been made to counter the adversaries’ narrative on a real-time basis.
Social media is more than an instrument of communication now. It is a weapon in the war of perception, and winning that war is as important as winning the actual battle. It is said that the pen is more powerful than the sword. A mobile phone is more powerful than either. Let us use this instrument, and the other social media platforms to shape perspectives and create the narrative in the wars of perception.
(Ajay Singh is the author of four books and over 170 articles. He is CEO of a company dealing in e-commerce and social media)