Proliferating Social Media In The Security Domain : Everyone Needs To Get Serious

Issues Details: 
Vol 11 Issue 2 May - Jun 2017
Page No.: 
Sub Title: 
Why is it imperative for us to have a dedicated large force of cyber and information warriors.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM (Retd)
Wednesday, May 24, 2017
A recent very informative seminar on Social Media conducted by an organization of the Armed Forces came none too late. With the backdrop of the BSF constable’s food video, the infamous jeep video from the Kashmir election and the visuals of the heckling of CRPF personnel in Srinagar, realization of the nuisance potential of social media is now causing major concern. The kinetic domain can always be looked after with induction of more troops, redeployment, slight change in tactics and infusion of hardware. It is the power of the new weapon, the innocuous smart phone in the hands of the devious which is proving to be a far greater challenge. It is a paradigm change taking place for quite some time but the realization that counter to this can only be found through consultation mode rather than silo based solutions has at last come into prominence.
It was good to see a couple of changes which were evident. First the seminar allotted just an hour to an experienced panel to put forth views and that included all the preliminaries. Thereafter almost two hours and more were allotted to the discussion in which equal opportunities were afforded to all without fear or favour and without prejudice to rank. It was heartening to see such a format where the intent is to find solutions through a discussion rather than teach the audience; more parent to parent communication rather than the ubiquitous parent to child which can be so irritating when you have people with vast experience sitting in the audience.  In fact most seminars of the Army, less those by training institutions, should be conducted on this format.
This article will restrict itself to bring out just a few important issues on the subject although a very large canvas came up for discussion. No doubt both domains, the social health aspects of the Armed Forces and the operational vulnerabilities formed the theme. Social health alludes to man management aspects, peacetime functioning, procedures, food, accommodation, hygiene, families, pay and allowances, postings and such like things. That found much less coverage here because the Armed Forces are pretty much in control of most of that with aberrations upsetting the party once in a while. On this aspect everyone was in agreement that sensitization of rank and file plus families is as essential.
It’s the operational part which causes the worry. The Armed Forces have unfortunately seldom considered the power of the information domain and how conflicts can also be won by targeting the minds of the selected players or the target population. The power to change, educate, manipulate or strengthen minds against adversary propaganda can contribute to the kinetic effort. Failure to visualize the supporting elements to a core strategy makes for poor execution. Social media has given a fillip to the information domain; information was always a weapon but never as much as today when you have tools to exploit it, developing faster than lethal technology of war. There are examples of the ISIS and Pakistan. The kind of knowledge based research done by the ISIS to attract the later generation of European immigrants, the ones with grouse against society, would put many academic scholars to shame. Pakistan’s Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) wing has always received equal importance as the Inter Service Intelligence (ISI). All that we are suffering in Kashmir today is the handiwork of the efficient ISPR.
We must have a structural and institutional approach to information management and exploitation. However, I do respect the idea that information is open ended and everyone is an information warrior with the advent of the smart phone. This debate will never end for the next century because technologies are absorbed faster by individuals than by institutions. The latter will always lag behind. Can we somehow take the best from both worlds? In other words can we take the organization, resources and discipline from institutions and shun their lethargy, procedures and bureaucracy. Similarly can we take the nimbleness, flexibility and individual brilliance of information warriors and use these qualities. This is a tall order but he who can synthesize these qualities will be the winner.
Till 2005 the Army did have the concept of Information Warfare brigades. One such brigade in Kashmir did some yeoman service during the opening of the Srinagar Muzaffarabad road but was disbanded thereafter. Obviously the information domain was yet emerging and no need for anyone to be faulted for this. Our national priorities were different. We always believed that military hard power would deliver to a certain point from where political processes would take over; it was wishful thinking and just too simplistic. A pragmatic policy on countering Pakistan’s propaganda and developing our own information domain to influence the public mind would have paid rich dividends. Now, of course we have no option but to fight the information battle with the same tools as available to the adversaries. The question is how, especially, in the J&K context?
Structurally, this cannot be handled by the Army alone. It has to have national ownership. Everyone has said this for long and now there is a need to re-emphasize it. It is classic hybrid conflict in which there are domains galore and each domain has to be fought, making it into a ‘whole of government affair’.
In terms of structure there is a need of an apex organization at Delhi, matching status to any Commission; it has to be populated by people from different departments and many academics as consultants. This apex organization will provide the policy guidelines. The Army needs its subset although many differ on the necessity of having a typical hierarchical set up. The Border States in particular need their own. In J&K, the UHQ or Unified Headquarters can form the nodal centre for it, without waiting for more time. How to populate it and with which hands can be a matter of detail. It will need to be a more uniformed force affair for some time in J&K but in the Army’s central domain it needs to be a civilianized affair with Army control. The participants of the seminar were unanimous in the view that it needs to be populated by young people not encumbered by the uniform. A civilianized Territorial Army (TA) model will have to be looked at. We cannot afford to have the Army’s career management model of exposure to diverse spheres applied here. Continuity and specialization provided by the TA model, along with military orientation by regulars posted from field. Of course, right at the beginning lay out the controls and the rules, such that disputes over control do not arise twenty years later. Of course all this can well be in the joint domain.
Moving beyond structures the issue which should engage most minds who are discussing social media should be concept and research. I am aware of some people engaged in this and am also aware that their biggest problem is where to start from. Counter propaganda needs information and knowledge to populate messages, articles and such things, even tweets. If the depth of understanding is poor there can be a holy mess created instead of counter propaganda or influencing operations. So the need is to create an army of such information warriors and specialists in different fields; for example knowledge of radical Islam is a must, basic cultural aspects of Kashmir, history of militancy, geopolitics of the region and much more. Of course language would be a plus. It is not easy creating such a talent pool.
We can agree on many aspects of how such a campaign must be run and it may be never good to discuss too much of this in the public domain but the whole thing must revolve around pro-activity, credibility, deniability, continuity, regularity, creativity, security and  sensitivity. It has to be intellect driven and yet without too much subtlety.
The current twitter handles of various formations are being used for information spread but it is just not enough and they do not have sufficient support. Despite this HQ Northern Command ran a most successful campaign called – ‘#School Chalo’, essentially encouraging children to break away from the shackles of the Kashmir situation and get to school, sit in the examinations and qualify so as not to miss an academic year.  The responses on Twitter particularly have to be extremely well articulated, subtle and hit the right nerves of the target population. It needs training, feel for the ground, trust in the handlers and a degree of decontrol so that everything is not controlled at the highest level.
If the nation has to be put onto a path of being sensitive to propaganda it will need quality content to be put out with assistance of sociologists and psychologists besides other professionals. Resource matching with adversaries will be necessary both in material and intellectual terms. This is a direction in which the world is going to move very fast in the next few years. It’s time India woke up the threats and the opportunities. Seminars on social media are necessary in the Armed Forces but equally for different segments of the population; more for sensitization and training than ideas in this case.
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