Defending Digital Frontiers in the Age of ‘Alternative Facts’

International relations have long been influenced and shaped by propaganda warfare. In contemporary digital age, the inter and intra-state ties are increasingly influenced by targeted peddling of “alternative facts”.  Battles on the field have started taking a back seat and have given way to battles of the mind and emotions in the digital space. 
The conventional concept of war “to capture land” is slowly being replaced by efforts to win over minds in the digital arena. Propaganda has always been a favourite and preferred tool of the states for laying the ground for perpetual advancement of their agenda. The digital space has given an entirely new methodology and power of influence to propaganda science. 


The impact of propaganda in digital sphere is so strong that now confusion has become a norm. Truth and facts have become a casualty of propaganda, and reality is lost in the fog of fake news. 


The election of Donald Trump as the U.S. president and the referendum on Brexit in the UK are the unfortunate examples of how ordinary citizens and social media users could get duped into believing what may not be in their best interest.


The essence of communication has changed and now we are living in an era of fabricated “truth” and concocted stories – the “alternative facts”. 
The use of digital space for skewing or maneuvering a given situation or facts in their favor is being done in a profoundly scientific manner by states, especially major global powers. To this end, multiple tools are employed. Social media and various networking websites are used to skim user data. Honey trapping is also used as a method to glean information. Highly trained psychologists are later engaged to analyze the data collected. Based on the analyses, users are bombarded with selective information. 


For instance, to know a person’s choice of clothing, the user will be bombarded with information regarding various brands. Analysis will start by observing the target’s behaviour and reaction. Simple emojis, likes, reaction, visiting time, frequency of visit, etc. will be noted. A series of reactions will be correlated and analysis will be used to define the character of the target. By defining character of target, he/she will be provided with the opportunity to experiment with these products. This will define the ultimate value of the product to the target.  

 
Propaganda warfare in digital space also commonly involves fomenting social unrest in an enemy country. Social media is used to stir religious sentiments of a people. Target users are bombarded with selected primarily provocative information. The behaviour of a target is observed, for instance, after pointing a finger at a religious personality or a national hero. The reaction of the target usually informs about the level of affiliation with the target towards a certain religious personality or a national hero, and possible engagement for future. 


Publication of material blasphemous to the personality of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in certain sections of international media is an example of propaganda warfare aimed at stirring religious unrest. Such acts are followed by criticism and portrayal of Muslims as non-tolerant, angry people, unwilling to live in harmony with the rest. The tactic can be summed as “first ignite, then criticize”. The model has been fairly successful in meeting its desired objectives. 


Other such subversive tactics include influencing the minds of the people by playing with their emotions in various fields such as history of wars, their culture and traditions, etc. 
Pakistan has been fighting war on terror for over a decade now and has scarificed more in lives than any other country. Despite this fact, Pakistan is criticized at international forums and is tagged as one of the most dangerous and “terrorist-friendly” countries in the world. 


Digital space is being used to spread this propaganda. Propagation of various anti-Pakistan posts has led to the rise in criticism of Pakistan and its armed forces which has undermined Pakistan’s efforts in the war against terrorism.

 
Young minds have been led to question the effort undertaken by the Pakistan Armed Forces against terrorism and extremism. The negative propaganda on social media is aimed at demoralizing and denting the spirit of nationalism among the Pakistani youth. The resultant confusion is further exploited by a segment of so-called liberal elite to reassert their ideas. The uncertainty has resulted in a lack of trust at the level of the public and is demoralizing for the troops fighting on the frontlines. 


Pakistan has been a victim of this propaganda since long. At present Pakistan is witnessing the outcome of this propaganda. Recently, various movements have sprung up questioning the state and its intentions in the war against terrorism. It has been portrayed that the army had committed barbaric acts during the operation against terrorists. The international media has bought the narrative and is spreading this propaganda. 


The academia is also being used to substantiate their argument. Academia is being offered with consultancies to work on a pre-defined framework and direction. It is being used to introduce a fake element of neutrality to pre-defined conclusions. In the context of the war on terror and Pakistan, you can find hundreds of books, papers, and articles that portray Pakistan as a “difficult country”. To further demoralise the people and the armed forces personnel of the country, books are being written questioning the credibility of Pakistan’s institutions such as its army, the ISI, and the other security agencies. 


The motive is to demoralize the soldiers and to launch a movement against the state that jeopardizes the ideological foundations of the country. In such circumstances social media websites and the digital space are being inundated with disinformation. Many social media websites are being overloaded with discriminatory material against the Pakistan Army. Moreover, a segment of locals are being encouraged to take lead in efforts to undermine the role of army. The strategy of maligning and undermining national institutes and their interests is in full swing. 


Culture is another area which is under attack. Cultural invasion is primarily aimed at influencing the minds of the youth of the targeted nation. Campaigns are also being run to show that cultural values of some countries are superior to those of others. Interestingly, there is no way one can ascertain whether the followers of social media pages of all such campaigns are real or fake. 


Cultural invasion is like a slowly spreading poison. The target becomes the victim without knowing that he/she has become infected. The prime example can be quoted from the film industry. Now, Hollywood and Bollywood have taken over most of the film industries across the world. In the context of Pakistan, Bollywood movies have undermined the progress of Pakistani cinema. Indian government and politicians know it very well. Sonia Gandhi once boasted that they had already won on cultural lines. 


Economy is another area which is a target. False economic data is used to portray a poor picture of the targeted country. Poor indicators of economy discourage foreign direct investment (FDI) and trade with a country. The prime example in the context of Pakistan can be quoted from the 1960s and the 1970s. It was being portrayed that West Pakistan was benefiting at the cost of East Pakistan. Data was used to build the movement and momentum. Ultimately this movement culminated in the creation of Bangladesh. 
This strategy has become increasingly intense due to the presence of digital media. Nowadays, Pakistan has found itself, once again, the target of a similar tactic. Propaganda is being designed to criticize Punjab for everything wrong happening in other parts of the country. The province is blamed for poor performance of the other provinces. Poor regions of the country are being exploited to run nefarious campaigns. For example, poverty in Balochistan, southern Punjab, and Sindh or in parts of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is being highlighted to blame the federation and not the provincial governments’ policies. Recent insurgency in Balochistan was built on this narrative. This time again army was the target of all ills. 


A similar campaign is being launched in the FATA where army is the prime target followed by the Punjabi ethnicity. Initially pressure was built by some people for the launch of military operation to eliminate terrorists.


 Once the government and the army urged patience to resolve the problem through dialogue, same people and the West demanded immediate military action and started blaming Pakistan for nurturing terrorists. They portrayed Pakistan as a terrorist-friendly country and criticized the army for not launching a military offensive. Once operations were launched in the FATA, the same class of critics took a U-turn and started criticizing the army for different reasons. Instead of encouraging or appreciating the operation it is being used as a pretext to dent and demoralize the army. Now, the army is being portrayed as a barbaric force, which is ruthless and does not care for human rights. Social media is filled with such anti-army statements and slogans. 


It has become imperative that Pakistan embarks on a comprehensive programme to counter negative propaganda against its institutions and ideological foundations. The defence of digital frontiers in the age of “alternative facts” is no longer a matter of choice.


The writer is a research scholar at SDPI with expertise in global diplomacy, climate change, water-food-energy nexus, and Track-II diplomacy. He teaches digital diplomacy, negotiation skills and conflict transformation at Foreign Services Academy.
E-mail: [email protected]

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