Disinformation must be adequately countered The Statesman 28 Dec 2021 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar

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Disinformation must be adequately countered The Statesman 28 Dec 2021

          A report last week stated that India banned 20 YouTube channels and two websites for spreading anti-national propaganda. The government statement read that these belonged to, ‘a coordinated disinformation network operating from Pakistan and spreading fake news about various sensitive subjects related to India.’ These posted divisive information on Kashmir, minority communities, General Bipin Rawat’s helicopter crash etc. As per reports, this disinformation campaign was being run from Pakistan under the Naya Pakistan Group and includes anchors from Pakistani news channels. These had a subscriber base of 35 Lakhs.

          In August 2020, Stanford Internet Observatory stated, ‘Facebook had suspended 103 Pages, 78 Groups, 453 Facebook accounts, and 107 Instagram accounts for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behaviour. As it notes in its takedown report, Facebook attributed this network to individuals in Pakistan.’ In April 2019, in a similar move, Facebook suspended a number of accounts linked to Pakistan’s DG ISPR, its army propaganda division.

          In Dec 2020, quoting the EU Disinfo Lab report, Pakistan’s foreign minister, SM Qureshi, accused India of using malicious accounts to discredit Pakistan. He stated in a press conference, ‘today, India is manipulating and misusing the international system for its own nefarious designs.’ India rejected the claim and the MEA spokesperson stated, ‘In fact, if you are looking at disinformation, the best example is the country next door which is circulating fictional and fabricated dossiers and purveys a regular stream of fake news.’ Both nations have been accusing the other of exploiting social media to spread malicious propaganda against the other, though India is way behind.

          Pakistan’s DG ISPR currently employs thousands of informational warfare specialists and interns in a coordinated disinformation program to push communal divide within India to further its own agenda. It has a budget of over Pakistan Rs 600 Crores. In Jul 2019, Pakistan newspapers reported an interaction of General Bajwa with these interns. This campaign is also intended to indoctrinate Kashmiri youth. Internally, the program projects the image of the Pak army as the saviour of the nation. This despite Pak having lost every war it ever commenced, and its army hierarchy being involved in shady deals, manipulation and corruption.  

During Pakistan’s internal elections, the DG ISPR propaganda switches track to discredit political parties the army does not desire. The organization also projected fake stories and videos to hide true casualties in both the cross-border strike and the Balakote air strike. This propaganda was amongst its most successful not only within Pak but also in many parts of the globe including India.

          For Pakistan, to counter a militarily and economically strong India, which has displayed its intention to offensively strike back, it needs a strategy of disrupting India internally by exploiting its cultural and religious fault lines, while protecting its own society from similar Indian actions. If India is to counter it, then it needs to target groups which are dissatisfied and suppressed within Pak, including the Baloch, Pashtuns and Sindhi’s while launching a strong counter to Pak’s attempts at breaking Indian cohesiveness. Projecting development in Kashmir would also split society within POK.

          Pakistan has been spreading anger and distrust within India by twisting government decisions and projecting them as being biased against specific segments of society and religious groups. The timing of the CAA riots with the visit of President Trump is an example of a successful information warfare campaign to damage India’s global reputation. The recent helicopter crash which claimed the life of General Bipin Rawat was being spread by Pakistan as a deliberate incident involving anti-India elements. Information warfare is bound to rise as the 2024 elections draw close. Russia influencing US elections should be a lesson for India. 

          With Muslim nations with whom India’s relations are on the rise, Pakistan’s disinformation campaign projects India as being Islamophobic. In some instances, Pak exploits services of its origin lawmakers and influencers in the UK and US to project India as intolerant. Pakistan supplements this campaign by comments from their political leadership. Most Kashmir terrorist groups exploit social media to project messages, gain supporters and recruits. They claim credit for terrorist strikes on social media pages which are run from Pakistan.  

          India has realised this threat though has yet to act in a cohesive manner. Ajit Doval had mentioned it while addressing IPS officers in Nov. He had stated, ‘it is the civil society that can be subverted, divided and manipulated to hurt the interest of the nation.’ His comments were countered with critics stating that accusing society of being anti-national breakdowns trust between the government and its own citizens and this does not bode well for the nation.

          Pakistan, which is a military ruled democracy can create organizations to run disinformation campaigns as also project its own armed forces as national saviours without its actions being internally challenged. If a democracy like India creates similar organizations, even if solely aimed at targeting enemy states, it would still face internal criticism, with political parties accusing the government of exploiting them for political gains. This would be because any organization on information warfare, to be effective, would need to be under the aegis of a central authority, possibly the NSC, which is controlled by the ruling dispensation.   

          The Defence Cyber Agency created for countering such actions, as part of its charter, is hampered because it remains service oriented with limited staff and budget. Hence, India is losing the information warfare battle to Pakistan. Unless India decides to act and create an organization capable of launching offensive information warfare against its adversaries it would be acting defensively banking on blocking sites rather than taking the battle to the adversary. India possesses funds and technology for creating such an organization however lacks the political climate to do so.

It must be remembered that in an age of nuclear weapons, a few motivated youth with laptops working in a coordinated manner can cause immense societal damage to an adversary. Unless effectively countered all positive steps to better life within a country and passing laws for its betterment can be twisted and disrupted by coordinated disinformation campaigns.