Now that the Modi government has appointed General Bipin Rawat as India’s first Chief of Defence Staff(CDS) for ushering in jointness in the country’s approach towards military and security issues, a subject that the cover story of this issue of the magazine deals with, I will like to point out why the CDS should have in his agenda to develop a blueprint for dealing with “information warriors”. Fighting the rival soldiers on the battlefield is as important today as fighting them in the social media. Your adversaries may stalk your digital lives. What is worse, these information warriors can identify a few dozen sympathizers in what they consider to be their enemy country and then groom them to attack their fellow citizens and succeed in stirring the pot of hatred and resentment between rival peoples, sparking a war or riots on a big scale. In other words, these information warriors can divide and conquer a country, its politics and its society and thus realise the political objective of a war without firing a shot.
For India, the above scenario is not hypothetical. We have seen how in in July 2012, the information warriors sitting in Pakistan sparked the ethnic clashes between Bodo tribes and Muslims, clashes that led to riots in Bengaluru, Pune, Chennai and Mysore. Here, morphed images of mutilated bodies in the wake of an earthquake in Tibet and cyclone in Myanmar in 2008 were misused by the information warriors and their messages went viral on all social media platforms. One month later, thousands of Indian Muslims congregated in Mumbai’s Azad Maidan to condemn the Rakhine riots in Mayanmar and later the event turned into a riot. In 2013, Exactly a year later, in September 2013, a fake video shot in Pakistan, showing two boys being killed in the Pakistani city of Sialkot, was reportedly circulated in Muzzafarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, triggering communal riots that killed 40 people. The video was allegedly repackaged to represent a Muslim mob lynching of two boys in communal violence in UP. The incident highlighted the use of social media platforms in rural India via mobile phone technology and the potential to misuse it for communal polarisation. Similarly we all know the roles of the Paksitani-based information warriors in Kashmir. In fact, the abuse of the social media is playing a huge role behind the present agitations all over the country against the Citizenship Amendment Act, particularly in the Muslim-dominated areas and institutions. I will not be surprised if later it is discovered that the Chinese and Pakistanis have been fishing in the troubled water over this through the social media.
The point is that information warriors are now able to drive their message viral. Unless you prepare yourselves to counter them, they will be able to shape the story lines that frame public misunderstanding to provoke the responses that impel people “to action, to connect with a plurality of followers at the most personal level, to build a sense of fellowship, and to do it all on a global scale, again and again”. In other words, social media has now become a powerful weapon. As a result, although the truth is more widely available than ever before, it can also be buried in a sea of lies.
Successful information warriors can prepare the battlefield and set the conditions for victory by spreading misinformation that can soften their enemy’s will to fight, deceive, and pollute his or her decision making cycle. Studies have shown how fake news and falsehoods penetrate “further, faster, and deeper” into the social network than accurate information. And what is worse, when, based on the fake news or overplays of few deaths and injuries, the media declares the country’s legitimate military policies and operations a failure and compels the government to withdraw or reconsider , the enemy gains immensely.
Of course, exploitation of the information environment has occurred throughout the history of warfare. Thousands of years ago, kautilya talked about it in his Panchatantra. Sun Tzu, the famous Chinese military strategist, wrote in his famous treatise, The Art of War, that, “The whole secret lies in confusing the enemy so that he cannot fathom our real intent.” The First World War featured the extensive use of information operations, including the first use of electronic warfare through the interception of wireless communications. When the war began, Great Britain, then the hub of global communications, cut telegraph cables to Germany. This led to a communications blackout for the Germans. During the Second World War, Operation Bodyguard used extensive physical and electronic deception to conceal the location of the Allied landings at Normandy. In the first Gulf War, the U.S.-led coalition made a concerted effort to control and influence Iraqi decision making through information operations. More recently, Russia re-took Crimea without firing a shot due in part to a successful information campaign.
Indeed, Russian strategist Gerasimov’s doctrine of “ non-military means of achieving political and strategic goals” is the latest in the series that says how use of information can exceed the power of force or weapons in their effectiveness.” Similarly, journalist David Patrikarakos, in his book War in 140 Characters, has argued how information technology and social media have fundamentally “destabilized classical forms of war.”
The information-warriors can be states(the US has identified China, Russia, Iran and North Korea as the most prominent states actors in the cyber domain) , state-proxies(as in the case of Pakistan) and individuals. Though States are somewhat constrained by international law, norms and diplomacy, they still may indulge in information warfare as it is relatively easy to respond to attributions. However, the better option many States find is promoting proxies by funding, training and providing technological access to them. State proxies are able to conduct cyber operations while their sponsor maintains plausible deniability. According to a recent study, China has focused on making maximum use of the skills present in its civilian workforce to develop ‘cyber militias’, which could potentially be categorised as state-proxies depending on how they are employed. Individuals can also disrupt traditional diplomacy, as when WikiLeaks released thousands of State Department cables in 2010, revealing U.S. diplomats’ candid and sometimes embarrassing assessments of their foreign counterparts.
It may also be noted here that the state of information war depends on the state of prevailing technology. If earlier it was dependent only on the physical domain,, today it is shaped by the domain that is both physical and non-physical. Physical aspects of the domain include international submarine communications cables, satellites, network routers, wireless infrastructure, servers, computers, industrial control modules and every smart device with Internet connectivity. Non-physical aspects of the domain in this cyber-age include “the data and knowledge that is created in or flows through cyberspace; software for the creation, collection and dissemination of data; codes for the control of financial and industrial systems; and malicious software, cyber weapons and the codes to counter them.”
Against this background, it is worth-asking who in India should deal with the information warriors. Will it be CDS or National security Advisor or Intelliegence Czars or the Police forces? Whatever may be the answer, jointness among all of them is key to the success.
By Prakash Nanda