India’s turn to learn from Israel how to combat disinformation warfare

| Updated: 18 October, 2023 7:43 pm IST
Israel's ongoing conflict with Hamas has led to many developments in the realm of modern combat, one being the misinformation warfare

In an era dominated by rapid technological advancements and global interconnectedness, the nature of warfare has evolved. While traditional military conflicts still exist, a new form of warfare has emerged in recent years: disinformation warfare. This subtle, information-based form of aggression leverages the power of the internet and social media to manipulate, deceive, and sow discord.

On Saturday, October 6th, incidentally, of great significance for Jews across the globe, Hamas carried out terror attacks on Israeli kibbutzim and settlements. These attacks involved a surprise infiltration by more than 1200 Hamas terrorists into Israeli territory, targeting towns, settlements, and kibbutzim near the Gaza Strip. The attacks included various methods such as storming Israeli beaches, engaging in firefights with Israeli forces, infiltrating towns, and settlements, opening fire on homes, and taking hostages. The attacks resulted in the killing and injuring of Israeli citizens, including children, women, and the elderly.

The attacks caused significant devastation and loss of life in the affected areas and garnered a military retaliation by the Israeli Army. Incidentally, Oct 6 to October 25 is also the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Yom Kippur is considered the holiest day in the Jewish calendar as it marks the observance of what is translated into the Day of Atonement.

What has been remarkable amidst this shock, grief, outrage and mourning of the Israeli people, its citizens, its journalists and the IDF is their closing of ranks to counter the disinformation emanating from the mouthpieces of Hamas from Gaza and various media outlets across the Middle East and the West.

The IDF held a Twitter Spaces event on the 10th day, for more than three hours attended by more than 100,000 listeners, clarifying the allegations of targeting refugees leaving Gaza towards the Southern border with Egypt into the Rafah crossing. The IDF spokesperson dispelled fallacies, disinformation, incorrect data and outright lies generated in the wake of the Hamas attacks and the inevitable Israeli military preparations for entering the Gaza Strip.

Many Indians find themselves pondering why they aren’t leading in the realm of disinformation warfare, given the ongoing need to counter Pakistani propaganda and address the continuous challenges posed by self-serving politicians who question the motives of the Indian Army. This is particularly pertinent in the context of the recurrent scrutiny from left-leaning political factions.

Disinformation warfare often referred to as “information warfare” or “hybrid warfare,” involves the dissemination of false or misleading information with the intent to manipulate public opinion, undermine trust in institutions, and disrupt the social fabric of targeted nations. This tactic is executed through various channels, including state-sponsored troll farms, fake news outlets, and social media platforms. While disinformation campaigns have been employed for decades, the digital age has enabled their proliferation and effectiveness on an unprecedented scale, especially after Elon Musk, the owner of X formerly Twitter opened the app for citizen journalism.

The implications and objectives of disinformation campaigns are to destabilize target nations by exploiting divisions, exacerbating political, ethnic, or social tensions, and fostering public mistrust. This phenomenon is something Indian citizens are aware of by now, employed by not just the Pakistani-ISI but also media houses in the West and the Middle East who employ our version of ‘brown coolies’ or Indian-origin analysts, experts, and academicians to sow discord and to weaken the nation’s narrative in order to gain fame, lucrative careers, incentives. This has been happening since our Independence struggle days – the ‘orientalist’ Western media tropes of the land of snake-charmers and rope tricks’ never having really gone from the ‘white colonial mind’.

Seeing the rise of India’s economic future, its geopolitical independence, its stabilising hold of its historical narrative and the rising awareness amongst the masses, the disinformation warfare has also reached peak levels, aiming to erode trust in our democratic institutions, tame our media, and even mock our scientific achievements as was evident during the recent Chandrayaan moon landing and our successful fight against Covid-19 pandemic. A population divided by conflicting narratives is less likely to make informed decisions or unite in times of crisis. Disinformation campaigns can lead to economic harm, particularly when targeting our local industries or native companies while falsely implicating them in wrongdoings. Stock prices can plummet, investments may dwindle, and businesses can suffer reputational damage.

There are lessons to learn from the Israelis today. Even though they are preparing for their war of all wars, to bring peace and stability to the conflict-ridden region and ensure Hamas the terrorist organisation is obliterated forever so that Israeli citizens aren’t targeted ever again; they are also successfully countering the propaganda emanating from Pallywood (a colloquial term for the false and fake videos of brutalities and children’s death originating from Palestinian Territories), often accidentally leaked.

Additionally, the global outrage against Israel, mostly engineered by leftists and woke groups is being countered daily by the social media app X, ensuring that community notes accompany questionable posts with false or misleading information. Citizen journalists are engaging with Hamas supporting rallies in various Western cities, videotaping their anti-Semitic rants, and making sure their employers or educational institutions know about their existence, which has resulted in backlashes and got many rusticated or terminated.

India is decades behind such a counter strategy but catching up fast. The cultural resurgence of India, generally labelled Hindutva, often disparagingly, is making sure that this time the nation has a hold on its narrative, its strategies, its plans, and foreign policies. But it has a long way to go as compared to the Israelis and Jewish supporting groups. The notorious allegations of an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) politician Raghav Chadha regarding the funeral arrangements of a soldier, forced the ADGPI (Additional Directorate General of Public Information), a department within the Indian Army to issue an official clarification on how the soldier died and that it doesn’t distinguish between soldiers’ deaths, which the politician had questioned.

If the country’s resources and valuable time are used in clearing its position for malicious actors belonging to the country, when will we counter the huge network of anti-India forces, charted out in Rajiv Malhotra and Vidya Vishwanathan’s book ‘Snakes in the Ganga: Breaking India 2.0’? They are embedded in our domestic institutions as well as internationally, collaborating with those, particularly in Turkey and China.

We have a nation to build — our infrastructure is getting an upgrading and a revamping; our educational institutions need overhauling, and our research and development are still not vibrantly active. We have just started defining our geopolitical independence and our insistence on home-manufactured defence systems. We still have to mend our permanent religious fault lines — a baggage of the Partition and Independence struggle days. There are scores of problems that need our attention – socially, politically, economically; that we cannot afford to lag in countering disinformation in peaceful times.

The Israelis, at war, are leading by example and their coordination teams, their collaboration, their precision plans, and their work ethics are something we, a parallel civilisation since ancient times, need to learn from and adopt. Addressing disinformation warfare is a multifaceted challenge that demands collaborative efforts from various stakeholders in India. Firstly, there is a critical need for public education, emphasizing media literacy to enable individuals to critically evaluate the information they encounter, fostering the ability to fact-check and discern reliable sources from unreliable ones. Indians have been forcing tech companies, particularly social media platforms like X, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube to play a pivotal role and proactively engage in combating disinformation by enforcing stringent content moderation, enhancing advertising transparency, and removing fake accounts and bots. Additionally, the Indian government has established policies and regulations to hold disinformation perpetrators accountable, such as withholding accounts of known perps and their accounts and channels in India.

A delicate balance has to be struck between preserving free speech and discouraging malicious disinformation. Given the transnational nature of disinformation, forcing international cooperation by India is indispensable in setting norms and agreements for effectively countering this challenge. It is imperative that we Indians recognize the power of disinformation campaigns, work together to counter them, and safeguard our information ecosystem.

As the battlefields shift from the traditional to the digital realm, the weapons used are no longer guns and tanks but false narratives and manipulated data. Confronting this new form of warfare is essential for preserving the integrity of our democratic institutions and the well-being of our society as a whole.

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