Scholar Warriors

Issues Details: 
Vol 9 Issue 4 Sep - Oct 2015
Page No.: 
Sub Title: 
Social Media: Positives and Negatives
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM (Retd)
Wednesday, June 22, 2016

I admit that social media is a ‘neither here neither there’ subject for my column which promised to address issues other than doctrine, operations and strategy. Since it doesn’t seem to fit into any of these three categories I can afford to take liberties. I wrote on the subject six months ago but even in that much time the world seems to have moved on in the dynamic stream of social media. A couple of issues come to mind immediately. First, the Army War College, Mhow has considered this subject important enough to include as the theme of the Annual AWC Debate this year; AWC’s themes usually become issues of concern for many years after they are included in its annual debate. In 2011 it outlined Concept of Victory as its theme and the issue has since then been at the forefront of analyses. Let us hope this debate too will augur well for intellectual examination of one of the biggest challenges that humanity is facing today – the problem of information being within the purview of individual freedom to proliferate at the touch of a button, in an unrestricted and universal dimension with no control over intent. Similar is the problem of availability of unrestricted information to almost every man in the street. It goes without saying that there being more personal mobile phones than tooth brushes in the world, humanity is indeed faced with a challenge as never before.

The simple part, first. Those who are with me on social media such as Facebook will recall a recent personal diatribe against me and another senior officer which was initiated anonymously. Advice given by many was to follow the usual response of ignoring anonymous allegations; this was always the recommended response of yester years because there were no means to spread counter information. Those means exist today and I followed my heart by placing a draft in the very same media and requesting friends help spread it through other instruments.  With a certain personal credibility the message went viral within minutes and put an end to the malicious anonymous message the origins of which I could trace through my personal investigation. If the message was malicious the intent of the those who never bothered to analyze even for a minute the effects of forwarding the same to their distribution list with add on message – ‘Forwarded as Received’, was even worse. It was mostly without application of mind and more by force of habit adopted by human minds which have ceased to rationalize, accept information at face value and do not read sufficiently to know what is happening in the world. Wily nily they open themselves to exploitation to trolls and elements in the cyber world that have no good of society at heart.

Not surprising that many of the unconscious forwarders are veterans whose technical knowledge and awareness of implications of their actions is questionable. Why is that so? I made an attempt to unravel. Usually when an individual receives a social media message on a medium such as Whatsapp the identity of the sender is irrelevant to the receiver, the contents are. He broadly peruses these from the top of the head and the contents may just appeal. If it is something to do with issues concerning aspects of the armed forces which are alien to him, having left service some years ago,there is an immediate resentment. “The Army wasn’t like this when I was serving, what have they done to it” – that is the emotion which wells up inside him. He has a new found power to complain by simply spreading that message to his address list all the time imagining that he is actually helping to cleanse the system. He is not alone in doing so although momentarily he thinks he is and that is the deep psychological empowerment. To absolve himself from any legal problem he covers himself by adding the words – ‘Forwarded as Received’.

Unfair to make allegations, that it is veterans who indulge in this. For the serving personnelsocial media is the best instrument to express grouses held against the system or personalities. Courses of instruction where grading is not to one’s liking, or the hundreds of live situations everyday which create some angst or the other lead to proliferation of messages. The course mate groups, regimental groups or others of this kind only help in spreading the messages. I recently requested a senior of mine to kindly remove unverified information from our unit group. He complied immediately. There would be many like him and unlike him too. They may send something out but refuse to see the light when explained how their action actually hurts the Army.

Everything is not negative. The One Rank One Pension (OROP) movement by the veterans at Jantar Mantar could largely succeed in mustering support only through social media. Photographs of the police action on 14 Aug 2015 went viral creating complete bonding between generations of veterans and more importantly brought women and children into the movement. Where the failure appeared to be,which is probably now being realized, was the inability to use social media outside the close service community. For this reliance was on electronic and print media which was whimsical at best. Opportunities on electronic visual media to sensitize the citizens of India did not appear to make that expected dent. Obviously none of the speakers were professional media persons and the message they put across became lost in emotions, something that the urban elite did not fancy too much. A classic effort at information with head and not heart was that of Lt Gen PG Kamath (Retd) whose article went fairly viral but again only within the service community. With no consciousness of the isolation from the civilian world, too much emphasis on visual media where recall is not too high and almost no effort to penetrate the world of the urban elite it seems the collective conscience of the nation could not really be raised. That is a major lesson not only for the veteran movement but also those who study social media. There is a necessity to find inlets into the networks outside the circle of the services. If we expect citizens to be sensitive to the rights of soldiers and wish to continue to pursue the larger issue of equanimity in the hugely imbalanced civil military relationship in India, then we just have to get more professional in the usage of social media. 

That brings us to the subject of the prolific use of social media by the Islamic State. Isn’t the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan studying that. You bet they are; they leave no new trend untested in our environment.  I had to respond to a veteran and advise him to follow up a mail to his mail group to refrain from spreading the message further; the message had disturbed him as it disturbed my suspicious mind and pertained to a poem on officer man relationship in the Indian Army. He believed it; I didn’t and knew that it was a plant. Are we prepared for a splurge of such messages which is waiting to hit us sooner than later? More importantly, is our ADGPI thinking at all of taking the information warfare across if we are subjected to it. My devious mind is working overtime on it.

For that matter, South Kashmir is alleged to be having a tech and social media savvy young leader exploiting cyber space to upload his messages and photos. It is all very romantic so far and agencies, as much as the army are expressing concern about it. We have all the right deductions; that the new militancy in South Kashmir is more about radicalism than that which was prevalent in the past. Fine, but what are we doing about it. Should it be the same story again whereby Kashmir’s Sufi mosques came under the control of the Ahle Hadith, the radical Salafi group, and we talking about it but never acted against it. I find no move to fight the new militancy in the domain of social media. We seem to be gearing up to follow the old world dictums of fighting with age old kinetic methods to win a unit citation; that is being un-smart in a world of smart warfare.

Social media is a new subject, a new dimension of warfare. Information warfare always existed but not of the kind today, the tools have all changed. What I would love to see as a follow up of the AWC debate is a sea change in the training methodology to bring social media up in front of all other priorities because it is going to hit us hard very soon and we better be prepared for it.

Regular Features