Social Media: A Weapon of Mass Manipulation

Author Name: Dr Zia Ul Haque Shamsi      30 Aug 2021    

Information warfare is as old as the warfare itself. However, in the olden days, “information warfare included only fields such as misinformation, propaganda, and deception.” It has been successfully employed by all nations, perhaps since Sun Tzu, who said, “All wars are based on deception.”

In modern times, Information Technology (IT) gained prominence with a study published by Harvard Business Review in 1958. Information technology has revolutionised communication, and enhanced interaction between people, groups, communities, and states. Since it was aimed at improving communication and information dissemination, it expanded its area of coverage at a much faster rate than anticipated. Moreover, the human appetite to absorb technology also helped spread its wings quickly, and across the globe in a short time. This occurred primarily because it helped bring people together, facilitated them in education, health, travel, communication, and improved lifestyles.

No sooner had states started to improve their adaptability to newer technology, the relatively developed states started to weaponise them to gain an advantage. Information warfare became exceedingly sophisticated and damaging. The phenomenal development in the domain of information technology benefited electronic media the most. Perhaps, the US-led Allied Forces successfully employed media as a tool to demonise Iraq and its leadership to their advantage in the Gulf War-I. Likewise, India employed a successful media campaign against Pakistan in the Kargil Conflict of 1999.

A never-ending media war has since started by the relatively advanced countries led by the US. India, too, invested heavily in its human resources to make significant progress in the field of information technology. Today, it leads the domain in software development across the globe. Some of the global giants in information technology, like IBM, Google, Microsoft, and Adobe, are led by Non-Resident Indians.

The human quest for better tools of communication continued and led to the introduction of the first smartphone by IBM, the Simon Personal Communicator (SPC) in 1994. Though it was not as sophisticated as today’s smartphones, it opened the floodgates of newer technologies for Android and iPhones.

The phenomenon of social media appeared on the horizon in 1997, with digitisation gaining significant ground in the ever-widening domain of information technology. And, as smartphones became more accessible, social media sites and applications also made inroads in society. As we stand today, social media has become a household name and is increasingly used to propagate one’s point of view.

Perhaps, the purpose of such rapid development of information technology was to achieve better connectivity, integration and networking in the globalised world. However, it was cleverly exploited by the relatively developed states for warfare. The phenomenon is commonly referred to as 5th generation warfare or hybrid warfare.

Today, social media stands fully weaponised and is being aggressively employed against the target states. India is using it to project Pakistan as a facilitator and a supporter of the Taliban in their efforts to form a government in Afghanistan. Concerting with certain elements in Afghanistan, and Pakistan, India instigates and propagates trends on social media (mainly on Twitter) to win support from its western allies against Pakistan. It has created hundreds of fake websites and accounts to project Pakistan as a state sponsoring terrorism and engaged in money laundering, which is then used for terror financing. Pakistan has been raising the issue of India’s involvement in terror attacks and even submitted a dossier of evidence to the UN, but to no avail. However, Pakistan’s claim gained support when European watchdog DisInfoLab revealed Indian Chronicles in 2020; highlighting India’s deep involvement in over 750 fake websites and accounts to malign Pakistan in western capitals. Yet, India’s propaganda campaign was successful in getting Pakistan’s name on the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) in 2017.

Social media, as a tool of hybrid warfare, is successful, because of its accessibility–thanks to the development and affordability of information technology. Today, some 46 million users have access to at least more than one social media application in Pakistan. Unfortunately, lack of good education and awareness makes them more susceptible to fall prey to the false propaganda of the adversary. Moreover, these social media applications are often engaged in sharing client data with state institutions. Recently, India’s opposition parties accused Prime Minister Modi of “compromising national security following revelations that dozens of Indians were potential targets of snooping by Israeli-made spyware.” Sensitive information gathered through social media is manipulated by the state institutions to prepare and launch malicious campaigns against the target state and even interfere in the electoral processes.

While the newer inventions and developments in the domain of information technology have brought people, societies, and states together, they have put them at a greater risk of getting manipulated and maligned. It is, therefore, necessary that social media be de-weaponised, and held back from becoming a weapon of mass manipulation in the hands of the relatively developed states.

 

The writer is a published author and presently working as Director (Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies). This article was first published in Daily Times. He can be reached at cass.thinkers@gmail.com.

 

Image Source: Etfa Khurshid Mirza

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