Indian agencies have been engaged in countering Pakistani cyber-attacks on social media platforms for a very long time.
But just like the fight against the coronavirus, only through the active participation of ordinary citizens can this war on fake news be won, suggests Colonel S Dinny (retd).
‘Bleed India with a thousand cuts‘ has been a State policy of Pakistan against India, implemented with unwavering resolve for almost five decades now.
It was in 1965 during a speech at the United Nations by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then Pakistan’s foreign minister, that he declared a ‘thousand years war against India’.
After the comprehensive defeat of Pakistan’s armed forces in the 1971 War and dismemberment of Pakistan, this ‘thought process’ was studied and conceptualised into a military doctrine at the Pakistan Staff College, Quetta (external link).
The basic premise of this doctrine was that Pakistan cannot defeat India in a conventional war and therefore a covert, low-cost, low intensity warfare in the form of terrorism will be effective to degrade India.
This strategy was employed by Pakistan in the most effective manner in Punjab, Kashmir and also in various other parts of India.
For a very long time, Pakistan was successful in achieving its strategic aim of draining out vast resources of India to counter these nefarious activities of Pakistan.
However, as the world itself became a victim of violent terrorist actions, Pakistan started to feel the heat.
Pakistan soon was globally isolated and branded as the ‘epicentre of global terror’. The Indian response against Pakistani terror operations also saw a paradigm shift with the changed political leadership in India in 2014.
Against the backdrop of these activities, Pakistan faced tremendous international pressure including from global organisations like FATF.
The ‘low-cost’ decades old strategy of thousand cuts was no more a low-cost option for them.
It was time to devise a new ‘low-cost’ strategy. It was time to ‘bleed India with a thousand tweets’!
As part of the Pakistani policy against India, cyber space was long being exploited.
However, it was after the Balakot air strike and the apparent helplessness thereinafter, that forced them to launch a full-scale cyber-attack on India.
In this cyber warfare, the most engaged platforms were Twitter and WhatsApp.
The cyber offensive was so effective that they were successful to create doubts in the minds of many about the exact nature of the air strikes, as also about the veracity of a Pakistani F-16 being shot down by an Indian MIG-21 aircraft.
The real manifestation of Pakistani cyber offensive was to be seen months after the Balakot strike.
Soon after the air strikes, there were many other sensitive events which were being unfolded in India that gave the Pakistani cyber warriors an ideal platform to launch their attacks.
First, it was the fiercely fought 2019 general election in India.
Then the newly elected Modi government repealed Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and followed it up with the introduction of the CAA.
This was also the period when the long awaited Ram Janambhoomi verdict was delivered by the Supreme Court.
All these controversial issues were such that there were sharp, differing opinions and perspectives in India.
Therefore, they were bound to be protests and acrimony as can be expected in any democracy.
Amidst these muddy waters, the Pakistani cyber warfare machinery singularly focused on exploiting the political and religious fissures in India.
While these issues were yet to be settled, the aftermath of the COVID-19 virus pandemic emerged.
The Pakistani cyber offensive during this ongoing crisis indicates the shaping of two false narratives by them.
These include, ‘Muslims are spreading the virus‘ and there is ‘Rising Islamophobia in India‘.
As part of these narratives, fake videos were circulated of Muslim vegetable vendors spitting on vegetables, a Muslim vendor sprinkling urine on vegetables and also a series of footage showing Muslim people being beaten up by policemen after they were seen congregating in mosques.
The videos of the brutal killings of two Hindu sadhus in Maharashtra were widely circulated.
Also, a systematic campaign was launched to dig out old tweets made by politicians and Non-Resident Indians indicating their ‘apparent’ Islamophobia.
There was also a tweet by a fake handle of the Omani Princess Mona (external link) warning Indians in Oman which was later traced to a user name called @pak_fauj.
For all the strategic outcomes of these cyber operations, the Pakistani ISI modus operandi is a relatively simple one.
They first create thousands of fake accounts on social media especially on Twitter. These accounts are made with both Hindu and Muslim names.
They then take pains to ensure that the Hindu name handles invariably show a distinctive ‘hyper nationalist’/ identity and the Muslim name handles show a distinctive ‘hyper religious’ identity.
Apart from these, there are a number of Twitter handles created to propagate extreme left and right wing political views.
These Twitter handles then start propagating fake inflammatory messages, audio, video clippings to build a narrative.
These tweets are then picked up, commented and shared by many of enthusiastic Indian social media users who identify themselves as ‘nationalists’, ‘liberals’, ‘awakened Hindus’ and ‘supressed Muslims’.
Soon these fake messages find their way into WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube and TikTok messaging apps and the building block of a narrative is complete.
A recent internal assessment (external link) submitted by the security agencies to the Government of India reveals that such Twitter handles have been classified into four categories: Aggregators, feeders, spreaders and influencers.
The feeders collect the photos, videos and voice messages from the aggregators and forward it to the spreaders.
These spreaders are located in India, Pakistan and even abroad including the Gulf countries.
There are many influencers with sizeable followers who are easily available on Twitter.
They just form a medium for creation of these narratives without them not even realising it.
According to an article published in the New York Times last year (external link) titled, ‘India has a health crisis and that is called fake news’, a study conducted by Microsoft indicated that 64 per cent Indians faced fake news online, the highest in the 22 countries surveyed.
Indian agencies have been engaged in countering these Pakistani cyber-attacks on social media platforms for a very long time.
But just like the fight against the xoronavirus, only through the active participation of ordinary citizens that this war on fake news can be won.
‘Break the chain’ is the most effective strategy to counter both the spread of the virus and fake news. India can no longer afford to bleed either through cuts or through tweets!
Colonel S Dinny (retd) took voluntary retirement from the Indian Army on October 1, 2019 after serving as an infantry officer for about 22 years in which time he did multiple tenures in the Kashmir Valley, the north east and along the Line of Actual Control. He has also served as a military observer with the United Nations in Congo.