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Disinformation must be adequately countered

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 which coincided with the visit of President Trump is an example of a successful information warfare campaign to damage India’s global reputation.

HARSHA KAKAR | New Delhi |

Areport last week stated that India had 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 included anchors from Pakistani news channels. They had a subscriber base of 3.5 million.

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 December 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 programme to push the communal divide within India to further its own agenda. It has a budget of over Pakistani Rs 600 crore. In July 2019, Pakistan newspapers reported an interaction between Army Chief General Bajwa and these interns. This campaign is also intended to indoctrinate Kashmiri youth. Internally, the programme projects the image of the Pakistan army as the saviour of the nation. This despite Pakistan 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 organisation also projected fake stories and videos to hide true casualties in both the cross-border strike and the Balakote airstrike. This propaganda was amongst its most successful not only within Pakistan but also in many parts of the globe including India. In order to counter a militarily and economically strong India, which has displayed its intention to offensively strike back, Pakistan needs a strategy of disrupting its neighbour 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 Pakistan, including the Baloch, Pashtuns and Sindhis while launching a strong counter to Pakistan’s attempts at breaking Indian cohesiveness. Projecting developments 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 which coincided 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 improving, Pakistan’s disinformation campaign projects India as being Islamophobic. In some instances, Pakistan exploits services of lawmakers and influencers in the UK and US with roots in its soil to project India as intolerant. Pakistan supplements this campaign by comments from its 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.

The National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, had mentioned it while addressing IPS officers in November. 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 by critics who said accusing society of being anti-national breaks down trust between the government and its citizens and this does not bode well for the nation. Pakistan, which is a military-ruled nation, can create organisations to run disinformation campaigns as also project its armed forces as national saviours without its actions being internally challenged.

If a democracy like India creates similar organisations, 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 is because any organisation 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 organisation capable of launching offensive information warfare against its adversaries it would be acting defensively, blocking sites rather than taking the battle to the adversary. India possesses funds and technology for creating such an organisation, but it 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 social damage to an adversary. Unless effectively countered, positive steps can be twisted and disrupted by coordinated disinformation campaigns.

(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)