Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM (Bar)
Former Military Secretary
The attraction of Twitter as a social media public platform is that in a limited space, users can place comments as they wish. In an instant, an informed or an absolutely wayward, abusive, and ignorant comment, enters cyberspace, to be read by anyone and everyone.
These comments do not have to be authenticated in any way. Twitter, of course, monitors the information space for any downright libelous and indecent tweets, but the task of doing this effectively is simply too enormous.
When longstanding differences of opinion between nations emerge and deteriorate to border standoffs or simply a one-off incident of clashes, it generates two things.
First, is an informed expression of serious analysis to get to the causation, present options, and find ways of maximizing the outcome for the home nation using the information space provided by platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, or WhatsApp. This is done by strategic experts with domain knowledge. A number of commentaries are put out in the video and textual format to educate the public, justify or criticize actions by the government and the armed forces in a constructive way, and cultivate the home narrative internationally.
Second is flurry of abusive, unrelated and mostly ill-informed comments that unwittingly do more harm to the same cause.
The target of ire may be the enemy, or the home political and military leadership, and various segments of media itself. All this is within the ambit of freedom of speech, a right we enjoy in a democratic society such as India – but should that right be misused?
Chinese Army’s ‘War Under Informationised Conditions’ & Strategy of ‘Three Warfares’
The context we are referring to here is the run of standoffs at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China. In public memory, this goes back to April 2013 at Raki Nala near Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) and then September 2014, when a more dangerous standoff occurred at Chumar, 250 km to the south. But armed standoff at the LAC has been a recurring issue for 15 years or more, ever since the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) achieved a threshold modernization. We had a long standoff at Sumdorongchu in Arunachal in 1986, and of course a bloody one at Nathula in August 1967.
Except for the latter, all such engagements have been without any shooting but jostling, stone-throwing, and lately, prepared assault with iron rods and truncheons has been common. The specialty of China’s concept of involvement in such engagements is threefold. First, an attempted ‘moral ascendancy’, (that the PLA is a better-equipped, trained, and more capable force) to physically cow down and dominate the Indian side. Second, are allegations of Indian aggression and encroachment, accompanied by transgression into areas where overlapping claim lines exist; primarily intended to cause confusion in the public mind of the target state.
Third, and forming an out-of-proportion effort, is the employment of information operations through State media and institutionalised social media.
This domain is a part of the PLA’s doctrine of 1993 termed as ‘war under informationist conditions’ (based upon the study of the First Gulf War 1990), and also of the 2003 strategy of ‘Three Warfares’ (legal, media, and psychological (with cyber often added to it).
The strategy focuses on causing a blurring in the adversary’s thought process, and confusion in the international community. It is accompanied by bouts of diplomatic bonhomie such as diplomatic summits, exchange of senior official’s visits, border talks, and trade and economic delegations in the interim periods between coercion. In many ways, it’s a progression of the old world Communist propaganda, which was considered an essential instrument of the State.
Perception of China’s Supposedly Incomparable Might
It is the domain of information that forms an equal, and in fact, many times dominant arm of the strategy, along with limited kinetic posturing to achieve the aim. The information domain includes a splurge of digital media with images of the PLA, its soldiers, equipment, and leadership. During Doklam 2017, this was supplemented by fire and maneuver demonstrations in Tibet and carried in-depth by digital media. This time, China is using video grabs of fistfights between the PLA and Indian Army soldiers, showing injured Indian soldiers, along with references and photographs of the Sino-Indian border war of 1962 which India lost.
Its aim is to bolster in the minds of the Indian population, leadership and the army, perceptions of China’s supposedly incomparable might, and an inevitable fate of defeat; ‘the ten feet tall PLA soldier’ syndrome.
To multiply this effect, it is also employing Pakistan’s ISPR whose presence in Indian social media space is fairly high and language skills of a better order. The strategy on Twitter is to create multiple fake accounts and put out tweets on India’s failure in 1962 and how PLA defended the motherland against Indian aggression. Allegations of Indian Army encroachment are made in halting and flawed English, in the hope of creating nationalistic fervor, and divert attention from Hong Kong and allegations of China’s role in the spread of the pandemic.
Chinese Manipulation & Suppression of Facts
China does not permit Twitter in the mainland and has Weibo instead. Content is accordingly manipulated with fake news for internal and foreign audiences. In the print media, the two mouthpieces are Global Times and People’s Daily which mirror exactly what is put out by digital and social media with attempted authentication by using scholars of the National Defence University and other strategic experts. Stung by international criticism of the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese information warfare appears less thought-through and more defensive this time. It is using the LAC standoff as a means of diversion to enhance nationalism.
Referring to China’s efforts to expand the scope of its narrative into the international environment, The Guardian wrote in 2018 – “Beijing is buying up media outlets and training scores of foreign journalists to ‘tell China’s story well’ – as part of a worldwide propaganda campaign of astonishing scope and ambition”. Obviously, the manifestation of that is telling.
How should India handle this?
In 2017, during the Doklam standoff, the Indian electronic media, probably under guidance, did a fine job of avoiding provocation; the print media was mature and had a balanced approach.
The Current Standoff Might Be An Attempt to Restore the Chinese Army’s Image
It was social media which for the first time tasted the freedom of individual expression against an adversary such as China. The efforts of many analysts to explain the situation and call for greater restraint were sometimes overshadowed by the mass hysteria of emerging nationalism.
Nothing wrong with feeling and expressing for your nation, but when this becomes provocative and does not fall in sync with government policy, it works against national interest.
This time, in 2020, it is once again being experienced. Videos of alleged clashes and brawls were posted by Twitter warriors from both sides, commencing with the Chinese since the early videos showed Indian troops on the defensive. The Chinese effort seemed to be an attempt to counter the image created during Doklam 2017 by burly Indian soldiers who were seen to be stopping the Chinese from moving ahead in road construction. It apparently peeved the PLA, with the creation of a perceived image deficit. The current standoff is actually being considered by some analysts as an attempt to restore the PLA’s image.
Social Media Being Used to Heckle Govt & Army Does Not Make For ‘National Interest’
The intent of the Government of India and the Indian Army is clear – that they wish to exercise restraint and prevent unnecessary provocation even as ways and means of engagement with the Chinese side are sought and exercised. The Chinese aim is no different, but it wishes to end the standoff with an ‘image recovery’. On the ground, the Indian Army is working towards Indian interests, which will mean measured offensive and defensive measures. Demands for transparency in policy are fine, but it is up to the government to decide what is in the national interest.
Social media being utilised for heckling the government and the army, and instigating the public through unauthenticated videos, does not make for national interest.
Perhaps what is important is to put out the right text with unprovocative content to create a positive Indian narrative in the international environment. China’s refusal over the last 27 years, to even discuss the delineation of a provisional LAC, is not sufficiently known to the world. Scholarly pieces on the Sino-Pakistan collusion to strengthen China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) is the other domain that needs to be projected to the world.
Controlling informal and unmonitored social media will reflect and bolster India’s international image. This can be done through advisories placed by the government in traditional ways using eminent personalities to convey the message of national interest. India’s nationalism can well be used most positively with deliberation rather than provocation.