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War of Attention: Impact of Social Media on the Armed Forces

  • Posted By
    10Pointer
  • Categories
    Science & Technology
  • Published
    15th Nov, 2021
  • Context

    In the contemporary world, social media has become an essential component of our daily lives. Social media has enabled people to voice their opinions, shape perceptions, and connect with people across the world.

    However, with the growing number of social media users, armed forces worldwide have felt social media’s impacts on various fronts.

  • Background

    • Many countries across the world have extensively used social media to conduct information warfare.
      • Countries like US, Russia, China etc., uses social media as means to deceive, discredit, undermine and frustrate the adversary’s local population, and other critical institutions.
    • In the new information age, the armed forces have become an important stakeholder, both as security providers of a nation as well as individuals.
    • The impact of social media would be intensely thrusted upon the newer generation of recruits, young officers who are more 'tech-savvy’ or who have led a more technologically adept lifestyle especially on social media platforms.
    • The current organisational structure that looks into the issues pertaining to social media, cyber policy planning at the apex level institutions are divided, which may affect the overall operational performance.
  • Analysis

    Why Social Media platforms are growing at such a fast pace?

    • Pandemic influenced usage: Social media platforms in the recent decade have witnessed a massive boom in usage, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic.
    • Solution for connectivity & communication: Social media has become a solution for connectivity and communication among people across the world.
    • Increasing government policies for promotion of internet: Presently, India, with its biggest digitisation drives — the ‘Digital India’ initiative aims to promote digital literacy, digitisation of government, schemes and services and increasing internet connectivity in India.

    Important Government Schemes

    • Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana (PMJDY)
    • Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyaan
    • PAHAL (DBTL)
    • NREGA-SOFT
    • Digidhan Abhiyaan
    • Aadhaar Enabled Payment System (AEPS)
    • Tool for empowerment 
    • Platform for free speech
    • Employment generation
    • Financial services, payments, health services, etc are all connected to digital mediums
  • How armed forces are getting engaged in social media?

    • In the new information age, the armed forces have become an important stakeholder, both as security providers of a nation as well as individuals.
    • However, some recent trends are worrisome from security purposes.
    • Recently, a growing trend has been witnessed wherein soldiers were seen flaunting off their combat equipments from various locations through images and videos on social media platforms.
    • This issue is being addressed and a new common is accepted.
    • Therefore, showing off military equipment on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok or its alternative applications is an important aspect of social media usage by the troops.
  • Why social media use is such a risk among armed forces?

    Major issues are as given below:

    • Sharing sensitive information
    • Serious reputational risks for the army
    • Violation of military code
    • Risk of making derogatory or disrespectful statements about political leaders by soldiers
    • Posting of inappropriate materials
    • Involve, or appear to involve, the improper use of grade or position for personal gain
  • The other side of the coin

    • Grievances and seeking redressal: There have been instances in the past when social media platforms were used as a forum for airing grievances and seeking redressal.
    • Being heard: In 2017, a constable of the Border Security Force was dismissed after he posted a video online complaining about the food served to the troops. Army men, especially the juniors, must feel that they are being heard.
    • Mental health: Soldiers of the Indian Army serve in remote areas and extreme weather conditions which adversely affects their physical and mental health. Thus they rely on social media and networking sites to stay connected with family and loved ones.
  • What are the overall impacts?

    • Security Threats: There is a possibility that small pieces of information, posted on social media platforms, can be collated by adversaries to know the personnel's near-real time whereabouts and this may jeopardise the security situation.
    • Information Espionage: ‘Honey Trapping’ remains one of the oldest tools in the domain of information espionage.
      • For eg: In March 2021, an Army Jawan posted in Sikkim, while on leave, was arrested by the Rajasthan police for allegedly leaking confidential information to Pakistan through Facebook.
    • Anonymity and Discontent: Social media offers great deal of anonymity to their users.
      • For example, a BSF constable posted a video on Facebook pertaining to the bad quality of food and alleged the senior officers of corruption. His video became viral in no time. Such instances may drastically change the public perception of the forces. Therefore, monitoring and addressing such instances in a time-bound manner may be critical to addressing this challenge.
    • Effect on the mental health of Soldiers: The advent of social media has bought in regular communication with friends and family at an individual's time and choice. With the communication gap rapidly decreasing, it has also bought domestic issues into the minds of the service personnel. Social media has become a reason for increased anxiety among troops.
    • Gap in Social Media Education: A simple tweet or a post on social media applications by service members can be ‘misinterpreted’ in many ways and hence create problems for the forces at large, that can be a cause for bad publicity for the forces among the general public or become a cause of concern for the leadership.
  • Recommendations and Way Forward

    • Internal Survey and Pilot Project: An important point that needs to be addressed is that of the geopolitical situation, and the region where the forces conduct their operations. Social media will need to be dealt with in a particular way that fits our own tailor-made requirements. Therefore, a pilot project is essential to find out the root causes of social media's challenges on the armed forces.
    • Need for a Chain of Command: It requires a substantive organisational structure. There needs to be a single apex level organisation that looks into the operational and policy aspects relating to social media and the cyber domains. The current organisational structure that looks into the issues pertaining to social media, cyber policy planning at the apex level institutions are divided, which may affect the overall operational performance.
    • Brigades for Social Media Offensive and Defensive Operations: A similar model that can be adapted for Indian conditions is the United Kingdom's 77th brigade. Composed of both reserve and permanent personnel specialised in information warfare domains, these brigades shall conduct Information activity, outreach, digital operations, media communications and so forth.
    • Bureaucracy and Synergy: Synergy between the different services is essential for successful deployment and operations. Social media can be a means to engage with the local population and gather intelligence regarding the adversary.
    • Lenient Policy and Engagement: A lenient policy may incorporate allowing service personnel to use social media on a condition that the personnel discloses/inform their making of social media accounts at the appropriate levels. Vetting of the information posted by personnel at the battalion levels can be a possibility considering other factors such as restrictions in stages in lieu with their area of posting such as in field, semifield or peace postings.
  • Conclusion

    As wars are becoming more and more complex and unconventional grey zone warfare becomes the new normal - social media shall become a mighty weapon for the militaries those harness it. Wars are not just about fighting and winning anymore but also keeping the narrative in favour of our forces and interests- and in this task, social media shall be a great asset to our forces. To harness social media, it would require the forces to imbibe a mindset change to incorporate newer ideas and move away from service silos.