In Focus

Fake News in the Post-Truth Era

We often hear the terms hybrid warfare and fifth generation warfare (5GW) which at times are used interchangeably. So, let’s first see how the two are related. Hybrid warfare can target any element of national power using conventional and unconventional tools of warfare. All available means including regular and irregular troops, diplomacy, electoral intervention, cyberattacks, disinformation/propaganda, social unrest, insurgency and terrorism etc. could be employed. 5GW, on the other hand, is a war of ‘information and perception’. Non-kinetic military actions including disinformation, social engineering, cyberattacks and disruptive technologies are mainly used in 5GW. To see as to how we have reached this era of 5GW, we shall go through the pages of human history. Without going into fine details, we see that the art of warfare has progressed through these generations of warfare as follows. The first generation of warfare is an era of ancient battles employing massed manpower that utilized muscular power of fighting men organised in rows and columns. The second generation of warfare was mainly dominated by firepower. The third generation of warfare employed mechanical movement, mobility and manoeuvrability to achieve speed, stealth, and surprise in warfare. The fourth generation warfare has evolved from insurgency warfare where all available networks including political, economic, social, and military are used to defeat the enemy’s political will to fight. It is aimed to convince the enemy’s political leadership that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit. 

5GW uses disinformation and associated delivery channels mainly in the cyber domain instead of firepower and manoeuvre. Military forces are no longer fighting in battlefields thus, there is no need for physical presence in the operational zone. Using global communication networks and cyber capabilities, operations can be launched anywhere in the world, mainly in social and cognitive domains.  5GW may be very hard to detect since violence and kinetic means of warfare are missing from the attacks. There is no need to declare war, so the victim state or nation maybe unaware of it or remain in a state of confusion between peace and conflict. As there is no violence and the war remains below the threshold of observation, the attackers will remain ambiguous, thus people could be conquered in an obscure manner and without realising it victory could thus be achieved without a fight. 5GW is a war fought on disinformation so the warriors can be both state and non-state actors. The covert nature of this war makes 5GW the most dangerous form of warfare. The fighters, either state or non-state actors, are never identified in 5GW for the same reasons. 
The idea of using disinformation and propaganda warfare is not something new. However, because of the availability of modern and much faster means of communication including electronic media, news channels, mobile phones, especially the internet and social media, has made this tool very effective and caused the weaponization of information. Some vulnerabilities or loopholes associated with modern social media platforms have made the situation worse. There is a famous saying that, “A lie has no legs, and cannot stand; but it has wings, and can fly far and wide.” A study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that “false news travels faster than true stories”. This is primarily due to the people on social media forwarding and sharing fake news without bothering to confirm its authenticity. The same study found that fake news is seventy percent more likely to be retweeted than true stories which take about six times longer to reach the same number of people as compared to false stories. A very simple question one would ask is, why does fake news spread so fast? The answer is linked with human psychology; people like new things and fake news are novel. People also like to share new things, regardless of whether it’s true or not. 
Social media is something that has effectively made this world a true global village where every user can communicate with any [and every] other individual. There are no borders, neither do boundaries exist over the internet or social media. The deep ingress of social media in our societies and absence of an effective mechanism to check the reliability of uploaded content or authenticity of the source has raised multiple challenges for every nation. Social media content can very easily be manipulated for malicious purposes. The use of sophisticated Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools, especially Deepfake (a portmanteau of "deep learning" and "fake") to generate fake sounds, images and videos are bringing new challenges to counter fake news. Social media accounts could be fake, paid, hijacked, or even bots could be utilised.               
Social media could effectively be utilised to influence the public opinion. We have seen this happening during the U.S. presidential elections of 2016 and UK Brexit referendum. During the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, voters of Hillary Clinton were prevented from casting their vote through disinformation, telling them to cast their vote by sending an SMS instead of going to polling stations. This disinformation campaign not only provided undue advantage to Donald Trump but also later undermined the trust of U.S. citizens in their own elections which is fundamental to the democratic process. Cambridge Analytica is a data intelligence and analytics company which collected the voters’ data from Facebook and used it to construct psychological profiles of the voters. The data was later effectively used to influence the voters’ opinion. Using disinformation as a weapon, unrest can be created in rival states and nations can be turned against their own governments and defence forces. We have seen this happen during Arab Spring, where people in many countries of the Middle East including Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Syria and Yemen etc. were targeted with disinformation using social media platforms. This resulted in strong anti-government protests, unrest, violence, and civil wars. We often hear that perception is bigger than reality but nowadays perception is the reality. However, building true perception is not an easy task as there are many means available (both credible and noncredible) to provide information (including misinformation and disinformation). It is very difficult to know the truth where information is mostly contaminated and some degree of uncertainty will remain there.  
Pakistan is a nuclear state with a strategic geographical location and advanced missile technology. This, coupled with our serious rivalry with India mainly over Kashmir, has made us a potential target and subject to permanent serious threats from India. Our internal differences in religious, sectarian, political, linguistic, cultural, ethnic, and inter-provincial domains are being exploited by our enemy – using both state and non-state actors – which has serious implications for our internal stability, politics, and cohesion. 5GW, waged upon us by our enemy, is secretly causing division and hatred among us where peaceful individuals are being turned into insurgents within our own country. People are made to protest on small issues which are exaggerated or portrayed in a similar manner, such as increased prices and inflation, unemployment, increased crimes, inequality, injustice, discrimination, insecurity, corruption, dictatorship and religious sentiments etc. There are challenges that do exist in our country which are especially significant for the common people. A person in a difficult situation is also in an emotionally unstable state and thus vulnerable to enemy propaganda, a situation which our enemy is exploiting. 
India has never accepted the very existence of Pakistan and has made every effort known to destabilise our country. We have witnessed this on numerous occasions in our short history. Now, India is continuously victimising Pakistan by every possible effort through 5GW as nuclear deterrence dissolves the prospect of a physical conflict. With the popularity of internet and social media in Pakistan, combined with Indian expertise in IT, a great opportunity has been provided to India to launch 5GW operations against Pakistan. We see that Indians are not missing any opportunity, may it be the Balochistan issue; suffering of people linked to terrorism by TTP; protests by TLP or PTM; or any other incident that is happening in any part of the country. Development projects like Gwadar Port, CPEC, dam projects especially Kalabagh Dam etc. are special targets of the disinformation campaign. Indian media has launched a massive disinformation campaign about the involvement of Pakistan Army in Afghanistan, especially Panjshir Valley, after the fall of Kabul in August 2021, but the propaganda campaign failed miserably. Pakistan’s name in FATF’s grey list is another example of Indian 5GW efforts against Pakistan. 
India is actively pursuing all possible 5GW efforts to target Pakistan. A Brussels-based organisation, EU DisinfoLab, has recently discovered a very sophisticated disinformation campaign being run by the Srivastava Group (SG), a Delhi-based company. The network involved over 750 fake media outlets, over 550 website domain names and over 10 NGOs accredited to the UNHRC (UN Human Rights Council) and the European Parliament. The network was spread over 116 countries and serving Indian foreign and security policy goals by carrying out a global disinformation campaign against Pakistan. The network was designed primarily to ‘discredit Pakistan internationally’ and influence the decision-making process at the UNHRC and European Parliament. The network remained functional for almost fifteen years before it was unearthed by the EU DisinfoLab. Such comprehensive covert networks could not be run without the active support of the Indian government. The detailed findings can be found in two reports published in 2019 and 2020.

India will remain active in harming Pakistan and will not miss any opportunity. We must respond effectively in this situation and defend ourselves by taking certain steps to effectively counter 5GW offensives from India. The best way to counter disinformation is to provide credible intelligence without any delay or voids. There are so many sources of information available to common people that fake news is not going to stay, not at least in the long term. Thus, we need to bring transparency so that people can see and hear the truth. Truth is powerful and appealing unless it is contaminated. There is one thing common in every warfare that has remained unchanged in history and will remain so forever; it is the exploitation of vulnerabilities. Our enemy is targeting and exploiting our vulnerabilities, thus, we need to identify such vulnerabilities or faultlines. Deprivation, anger, frustration, inequality and injustice may result into people standing against their own governments. Thus, the vulnerabilities that exist need to be addressed. Unauthorised use of power and the use of authority beyond limits at all levels is the biggest threat we are facing. Lack of transparency, absence of effective accountability and unavailability of justice has compounded this situation and has eventually amplified the threat becoming much bigger, hence, more damaging. Beside our vulnerabilities, India is also targeting our potential projects and is a continuous threat to these opportunities which could help us progress further to build a stronger Pakistan. Targeting the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and associated projects are obvious examples in this regard. Karachi, the economic hub of our country, is targeted for its economic potential. Balochistan, with 43.6% of our land mass, enriched with natural resources and a 770 km long coastal line, is targeted by Indians for its vast potential and opportunities the area could offer. Our military forces being a symbol of our national unity and integration and our nuclear program, a source of national security, pride, and prosperity, are targeted by Indians for the same reasons.
We need to have an effective strategy to counter Indian 5GW threats. 5GW is non-conventional thus counteractions must be novel and innovative. Communication and collaboration are two very important skills that everyone must learn and practice. By everyone I don’t just mean every individual but every organisation and department within our country or even every nation in the global perspective. This helps to strengthen our friendships and make new friends who can work with us in areas of mutual interest and achieve common objectives. There are different organisations and departments working in our country, especially intelligence agencies, to achieve the same objectives, but we generally see that communication, collaboration and coordination is lacking. Efforts by different departments need to be synergised to meet national objectives. Sometimes these organisations are unnecessarily involved in a competition amongst themselves and spend their energies and resources, which shall otherwise be used in a better way to achieve the given objectives. This culture of false competition must be changed with more cooperation and coordination at all levels. At the national level, close coordination among military, diplomatic, judicial, and economic institutions is crucial. At the international level collaboration with foreign counterparts and international institutions is important to counter 5GW threats. We need to set common goals and find areas of common interest where we can work with other nations. All international forums such as the UNO, EU, ECO, SCO, OIC etc., shall be effectively utilised to share authentic information about Indian actions and counter hostile propaganda and disinformation campaigns.

At the governmental level, relevant policy, strategy, laws and regulations are required to regulate social media service providers, protect our social media users’ rights and localisation of users’ data. Indigenous social media platforms could be developed and deployed. It is also important to make social media users fully aware of social media harms and not to share information which is not credible or true.      
In short, to counter the enemy’s 5GW actions, we must provide timely and accurate information to the world. Strong cooperation/coordination among different departments at the national level and active participation in global alliances is also important. As actions speak louder than words, it is more important to overcome our vulnerabilities or faultlines. The people of Pakistan shall be provided with their fundamental rights, all citizens shall be treated equally without any discrimination and there shall be no exploitation by the rich and powerful. Transparency and accountability shall be widely prevalent. All elements of national security including non-traditional security threats shall be adequately addressed. 5GW is a war of perception and narratives that involves active participation – mainly by non-state actors – on social media and other online platforms. It is thus important that every Pakistani must be aware about 5GW. We need to change the mindset of our people to enable them to understand and counter the newly emerging threats. Everyone shall play their role as disjointed efforts on social media are more effective and difficult to detect/neutralise. In this regard, a comprehensive national strategy and activation of our think tanks/scholars is also required. To promote the positive image of Pakistan, all available means of information especially online/social media and other electronic means shall be utilised. Wider coverage and publicity shall be given to our national heroes, national achievements and success stories. Our rich heritage, contributions and sacrifices of our Armed Forces and other law enforcement agencies, the positive impact of CPEC projects and other positive aspects of this country shall also be publicly shared.

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