An instrument of combat
In this data-driven age, misuse of social media as a weapon of perception management, political combat and proxy wars has become widespread
The Age of Information that set in with the success of IT revolution some three decades ago pushed the world economy and cross-border human interactions up in a transformational manner and established globalisation as a new reality.
It has facilitated a phenomenal rise of businesses in terms of both products and services and created many positive socio-political trends. There is a new level of global competitiveness in business that is good for customers and a new kind of power of communication in the hands of citizens that forced transparency of governance, making it difficult for dictators to politically survive for long.
It is the destructive side of the use of cyberspace, however, that is beginning to show up more and more – at the level of individuals, organisations and nations – and clearly converting even the social media into a weapon of perception management, political combat and proxy wars.
In India, the Twitter campaign that was designed to show that the Modi regime had created an atmosphere of intolerance towards the minorities, the orchestrated criticism of the government for creating a 'surveillance state' following an order of the MHA authorising the Intelligence agencies to scan any computer resource for reasons connected to national security and the escalation of the Pakistani ISI's proxy war against India through the clandestine use of social media for radicalising Muslim youth in Kashmir and elsewhere, illustrate this point.
It is a welcome feature of the new age we live in that leaders of the government and those in the opposition take to social media for reaching out to the people to explain their stand on issues of the day.
US President Donald Trump uses Twitter to an amazing degree for announcing his foreign and domestic policies and issuing rejoinders to his critics. This is also now a part of electoral politics that depends heavily on perception management.
In India, political propaganda is being made on social media even in disregard of the prohibitory provisions of the IT Act – now under adjudication – that punished calls for violence, inflammatory pronouncements having the potential of creating communal disharmony and statements insulting the national flag. Though the dividing line between what is gross and abusive on the one hand and suave and convincing on the other, has thinned out as far as the political discourse is concerned, use of the power of social media has now become a significant factor in India's electoral battles – resort to 'fake news' notwithstanding.
The concept of influencing the will or behaviour of adversaries is not new and is now being practised with full vigour across the world because it is a low-cost option also for targeting masses or voters in an election. Citizens are now increasingly impacted to shape the outcome of elections and to pressure their governments to change policies.
Social media is a means of raising the people's voice, which is fine, but more often than not, it is now used as a tool for motivated campaigns of vested interests within or outside of the country. The Indian government has been compelled, in recent times, to have close scrutiny of the NGOs suspected of precisely doing this and examine their funding and links to safeguard national security and integrity.
In technical terms, the aggregated data, when processed through advanced algorithms can reveal significant material for perception management. 'Influence operations' exploit emotional vulnerabilities. Political parties and even external forces use social media platforms for the circulation of misinformation and even fake videos to create apprehensions, manipulate perceptions and mould public opinion.
Parties are now going beyond the old practice of 'bribing' voters to use the technology of data firms and services on hire for targeting communities on social media so as to tilt voting behaviour in their favour. They use analysis to decide what the focal points of their campaign should be.
Cyber-enabled operations are now an integral part of Information Warfare. A planned effort to use technologies and devices is made not only to steal the target's data for monetisation, which is a part of competitive business today, but also for pursuing hostile missions such as degrading the target's systems to deny the advantage of information to the latter and planting manipulated information to elicit a particular response on selected issues.
There are increasing incidents of data breaches in India. Some three million records were stolen, lost or exposed in the country in 2017 – a whopping increase over what happened in 2016 while in 2018 millions of records were believed to have been compromised in the Aadhaar breach alone.
There are large leakages of data from MNCs. Cambridge Analytica was suspected of having harnessed data of millions of Facebook users, of which Indians were a significant segment. The firm reportedly leveraged them for political campaigns. Its parent company reportedly had links with British Intelligence agencies. Similarly, Microsoft is said to have routinely shared the financial details of Indian bank customers with Intelligence agencies in the US – the Reserve Bank of India had reportedly flagged this breach.
Information Warfare has moved towards its combat version – cyber warfare – which, in turn, is fast getting integrated with general warfare. Cyber operations are now set to play a decisive role in military combat. The US has elevated its Cyber Command to the status of what is called the Unified Combatant Command. China has created a Strategic Support Force to provide necessary support to the Chinese Armed Forces during the war and protecting Chinese interests in cyberspace during non-war periods. Russia has special forces for information warfare. Artificial Intelligence-based cyber weapons are being developed by major powers with the result that Information Warfare is becoming Intelligence Warfare, adding to its surprise element.
In India, strong laws protect the Right to Privacy in the use of social media. The public does not realise, however, that entering cyberspace is like being on a public thoroughfare or in a public park where you are completely visible and have no right to demand that people did not see what you were indulging in.
On social media, you should not do what you are not supposed to do – there would be a legal deterrent in place. The government is also tightening the law for service providers to deter them from passing on personal data for commercialisation. In the Indian context, CERT-IN has reported a very large increase in cyber attacks in recent months – more than half of which originated from China and Pakistan.
India's security set-up is seized of the threat posed to our national security by Islamic radicals who are being indoctrinated on social media and the sleeper cells of terrorists who are being funded and logistically supported by their masterminds from across our borders through layered communications online.
In short, social media is as much a tool of progress for the law-abiding as it is a weapon of proxy war for our adversaries. Preparing for warfare outside of the battlefield is the new challenge for the nation.
(The writer is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau. The views expressed are strictly personal)
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