Scholar Warriors

Issues Details: 
Vol 9 Issue 6 Jan - Feb 2015
Page No.: 
Sub Title: 
Social Media and the Armed Forces
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM (Retd)
Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Listening to a lecture at an Army institution a student officer disagrees with what is being said. His own experience recalls something else but the teaching which the senior officer is referring to is on a different tack, more about theory. Situations in the profession of soldiering are seldom as per theory and planning. The officer’s grouse or disagreement could be given vent through a comment or a question at the end of the lecture but instead he reaches for his smart phone and punches a tweet of frustration followed by a Whatsapp message expressing his unhappiness. It goes viral within seconds. Cut to a directive by a senior officer issued after some of his observations to forward posts and CI areas. A CO finds it abhorrent and feels the senior officer is not in touch with ground reality; the directive he feels will compromise his concept of operations and prevent what he feels may be his legitimate achievements during a challenging command tenure. He gets on to Facebook where he has a fake account and posts a condemnatory text against the directive. The post is shared by many hundred others with fake accounts/IDs. Welcome to the world of social media, an instrument which can effectively alter opinion for the positive but is causing havoc in the disciplined and hierarchical Indian Army. Simple demarches to officers not to use social media and ban on USB drives in computers are not working. Is it right for the Army to ban its officers and men (men are actually using Facebook and I have one or two friends from the ranks)? Should a more pragmatic policy be evolved? Should Army officers, otherwise known for their discipline and implicit loyalty, be better educated about the ills of social media and instructed more maturely about its usage and handling? These are the questions before us after the recent incidents which have led to a degree of loose discipline (not indiscipline) in an organization where social norms are strait jacketed with little scope for flexibility.

We have two issues at hand. First, is social media detrimental to Army discipline? Second, is there a need for personnel to be on social media or use social media? After the recent flurry of activity on some open domain social media sites post the Chhatergam and Uri incidents and the statements of the Army Commander, Northern Command, the Army has finally come to wrestle with an issue it had been avoiding thus far. Ever since social media hit the networked world, the Army’s leadership, new to the game and unable to grasp the import of the technology or its capacity to inform and misinform, used the only option they knew – impose restrictions on the uniformed community. However, it should have been well realized over many years that the Information Age was upon us and we could not run away from it. Information warfare was given peripheral relevance even as its importance as a relevant factor was well recognized. Archaic practices such as returning alumni from course of instruction conducted abroad were banned from maintaining contacts with their alumni groups. These were all un-implementable directives as could easily be realized by those who were in the know of things and aware of the creeping social media technology. Importantly, even as I was researching for inputs for this column I came upon this outstanding article at, and a quote from it may set the pace for some introspection about what needs to be done and where we stand. Here it is in slightly modified form:-

“Post-Vietnam, Generals of the US found themselves in the midst of a vastly more complex world—one in which the prospect of a confrontation between superpowers faded only to be replaced by ethnic conflicts and asymmetrical warfare against stateless, non-uniformed combatants, in which victory was a difficult-to-define concept. Leadership in this new milieu required generals to utilize new methods”.

The new methods referred here are Information and Communication. The article goes on to say:-

“Not only responsible for deciding major matters of strategy and tactics while inspiring the soldiers in the field to give their all, top generals increasingly have become technologically savvy communicators and influencers of public opinion and government policy-on occasion even emerging as pop culture celebrities who grace the pages of glossy magazines like Vanity Fair . And with that high profile comes with added pressure. News media scrutiny of their performance is more intense, and one misstep in the public spotlight can shorten a career”.

I strongly believe that in the world of long drawn irregular warfare the need for communication is even more than in conventional operations where there is lesser scope for decentralization and debate. As such if you do not allow subordinates to communicate their thoughts they will never grow to becoming communicators when they are Generals, managing and leading the same campaign in which they were sub-tactical leaders. Technology has thrust itself upon the Army and in the US Armed Forces there are social communication websites within intranets as well on the commercial World Wide Web, of course duly secured.

There will be enough detractors to state that the Indian Army is a more traditional, rule bound and hierarchical Army which does not require to ape foreign armies. If we go by the Traditionalist style we will continue being hit as we were just a few weeks ago which resulted in the denting of the image and the discipline of the Indian Army.   There are a couple of things that we need to realize. First, that there are enough means to publically let out grouses. Secondly, that anonymity is an essence of social media. Third, General Officers have to be much more communicative of their rationale to be convincing enough for their strategy to be followed in letter and spirit. Lastly, that social media is also a great vehicle for manipulation and deception. The recent posts in social media questioning some decisions of senior officers in J&K may well have come from across the LoC. Deceptively crafted disinformation on the Internet has been the forte of the Pakistan  ISI as exemplified by the article in an online newspaper called the Daily Mail replete with Indian and foreign names of correspondents; it can be found at Datelined 10 Jan 2010, it very interestingly speaks of sex units raised in the Indian Army and a host of information about them. Disinformation and targeting the image and self-esteem of the Indian Army is therefore nothing new but we have kept our eyes shut to this menace and now the complex mix of indiscipline, disinformation and quick methods of dissemination through social media is threatening its effectiveness in an area of its expertise, Counter Insurgency operations. As we proceed towards more technicalization and speedier forms of dissemination and communication archaic practices can no longer hold sway.

The Public Information Directorate’s recent attempt at arresting the trend through a demarche is tactical firefighting before the issue has been discussed in the larger forum of the Army Commanders Conference. It addresses one segment of activity and that is the anonymous posts on social media. There is a much larger dimension to it involving the necessity of two way effective communication, both upwards and downwards so that feedback can be taken and rationale in more explanatory form is directly communicated without intermediate Headquarters acting as post offices churning copies for lower dissemination. How this needs to be done and what technology is necessary to be adopted is something for greater discussion and feedback before I put down ideas and thoughts in the next part of this article. In the meanwhile, there are two things the Army would be strongly advised to do. First, the Directorate General of Military Training in combination with the Army War College’s Faculty of Studies and the Military College of Telecommunication Engineering needs to deeply study just how better methods of education of the rank and file(including senior officers) in the vast area of social media needs to be executed. Secondly, even while this is underway over the next few months, all training institutions under the Army Training Command (ARTRAC) need to evolve methods of motivation to rekindle some of the sense of loyalty and patriotism which is so essential among all ranks. Debates are good and some expression of dissent within house is even healthy but we all know how much of that is acceptable and how much can actually lead towards taking us over the hill and across the tipping point of negativity, all of which will do no good to the institution. This is an emergent requirement because we can ill afford a cadre of personnel who talk of constitutional rights even as they remain wedded to the olive greens.

Am I jumping the gun here? I can’t be sure because this is a subject which can have really diverse opinion and ideas. Having never really debated it perhaps it is time we did.

Regular Features