In the old days, wars were fought using armies standing face to face, such as in the first world war. Then came the aeroplanes and the jets, which allowed wars to be fought in the air, and far inland from the front lines, as was seen in the second world war.
Fast forward to the 1980s and the US invented another form of aggression — asymmetric or unconventional war. In this, the attacker brainwashed and trained ‘predisposed individuals’ using ideologies such as religion and nationalism and surreptitiously sent them to attack the enemy’s civilian or military targets.
Pakistan, which was the US’ chosen partner in perfecting the asymmetric war against the USSR, soon became the most successful practitioner of the strategy. It became so successful that it was even able to use it to torment its former mentor using outfits such as the Haqqani Network.
Fast forward to 2017, and the world is seeing the emergence of the fourth type of war — the social media war, also known as the fake news war.
This time, fairly or unfairly, the credit for perfecting it has been laid at the doors of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
The Americans allege that the Russians created hundreds of fake news websites that spread false information about Hillary Clinton last year with a view to ensuring the victory of Donald Trump in the November elections.
Some of the widely circulated ‘news articles’ had headlines such as ‘Hillary confirmed to have Kuru Disease from Cannibalism’ and ‘Drunk Hillary beat the Sh*t Out of Bill Clinton’.
Hundreds of websites were created with content like these, and were subsequently ‘seeded’ on targeted social media hangouts — mostly conservative Facebook Groups — for sharing. And share people did, in their thousands and tens of thousands.
The strategy, whether implemented by Russia or some conservative group in the US, was considered successful enough that there is an FBI investigation to see if a foreign power influenced the US election to ensure the victory of a friendly candidate. Somewhat similar attempts were also alleged to have been employed by interested parties in the French election and the Brexit vote.
Intelligence and social media experts are now wary that India could be the next victim of a similar attempt by foreign agencies to create internal social disturbances and influence the political fortunes of its mainstream parties.
The country will head into an election in early 2019 that will prove to be crucial for consolidating many changes, some quite radical, in the country’s economic, political and defense strategies brought about by the current dispensation under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Under Modi, for example, India has moved strategically closer to the US, Israel and Japan, while relations have China and Pakistan have become more strained.
The latest example of the new strategy is the ongoing stand-off at Doklam in Bhutan. Under the previous government, India did not adopt a confrontational strategy against an increasingly assertive China that is keen to ‘restore its rightful place’ in the world. However, under Modi, India refused to give in, and sent troops to Doklam in Bhutan to prevent the Chinese from building a road on the plateau, which both Bhutan and China claim.
Despite unprecedented and daily warnings from China — both in words and actions — India has stood its ground, and even conducted a joint naval exercise with Japanese and US troops in the Indian Ocean.
It is in this context that a large number of fake videos and ‘news’ are being circulated on social media with two apparent aims — to lower the chances of the BJP winning again in 2019 and to create a sense of insecurity, vulnerability and alienation among India’s minorities, Dalits and moderate Hindus.
Adding fuel to the fire are a bunch of ‘lathi terrorists’ and goons who believe it is their religious duty to beat to death anyone caught transporting cattle over the road.
They believe that most of such cattle is being transported for slaughter, and it is their duty to kill anyone who does so. To make a point, such gangs also film their acts and publicize such killings.
Videos of such lynchings and beatings — most of whose victims tend to be Dalits and Muslims — create a sense of anger, alienation and insecurity among the these classes.
Sometimes, as in Una in Gujarat, these lead to widespread protests and processions.
But mostly, it just creates simmering discontent, dividing the country from within, weakening it and making it an easier target for foreign powers.
While lynchings and beatings do take place, the ‘social media war’ is focused on amplifying the impact of such incidents manifold.
This is achieved through two ways: The first is to spread the genuine videos as widely as possible through WhatsApp, Youtube and Facebook.
However, given that there are a limited number of such incidents — perhaps around a dozen in the last three years — this strategy has limited potential.
This is where the second strategy of fake news comes in.
Under this strategy, videos of unrelated incidents, such as, for example, a rapist being beaten by a local mob, is dressed up as yet another mob lynching incident related to cow protectors.
An example includes dressing up an incident of state police in Bihar dispersing a mob of Muslims as an attack on the community by Modi’s police in Gujarat.
Such videos are then uploaded on Youtube and WhatsApp, especially in groups whose members fit the target socio-political profile — such as minorities, or people who do not know much about video editing and information warfare and so on.
The videos are then spread virally, helping to weaken the country’s fabric, one thread at a time.
Besides the cow, India’s enemy countries are reported to be using other fault-lines opened up in recent times to divide the country.
One of these is the opposition in non-Hindi speaking states to the imposition of Hindi in these states for official purposes.
“Such strategies can be extremely simple,” says a social media expert based in Bangalore. “All you need to do is create an inflammatory question on Quora asking — ‘Why can’t South Indians accept Hindi as the national language?’ or ‘Is United States of South India possible?’ You can leave the zealots on both sides to do the rest.”
According to intelligence sources, countering such a strategy involves two broad actions — countering the fake videos themselves, and removing the socio-political conditions that allow such fake videos to seem genuine to the audience.
Just trying to track and take down fake videos, points out a social media expert based in Bangalore, is like trying to douse a fire in a godown using buckets of water.
“That is a losing strategy,” he says. “The more intelligent response is to ensure that you don’t keep flammable substances such as petrol and kerosene in the godown and that you make everyone aware of the possibility of fire.”
By petrol and kerosene, the expert is referring to genuine cases of cow-related violence that happened since the new government came to power in India. Such incidents that create an atmosphere in which fake videos can seem genuine, he says.
“Prevent these,” he says. “In cases where that was not possible, show to the nation that the guilty are being punished and that no one will be allowed to take the law into his hands.
“Show that the government means business. This will immediately reduce the levels of insecurity felt by the target communities — minorities, Dalits and liberal Hindus.”
The other part of the strategy is focused on the fake videos themselves. It is, says the expert, more or less impossible to prevent people from uploading such videos.
“Instead of adopting a defensive strategy — trying to delete all such videos when they are uploaded — it is better to adopt a proactive strategy.
“Bring out your own videos to create awareness about cyber-war, take the people into confidence. Let them know that a war is being fought, and they are very much part of it.
“In a way, this is like vaccinating the population against an epidemic. If everyone is vaccinated with awareness about the new war, you don’t need to chase down and kill each person who tries to spread the germs of the disease.”