In this file photo, a man hangs on to pole holding a Sikh religious flag along with a farm union flag at the historic Red Fort monument during a farmers protest against new farm laws in New Delhi(AP)
In this file photo, a man hangs on to pole holding a Sikh religious flag along with a farm union flag at the historic Red Fort monument during a farmers protest against new farm laws in New Delhi(AP)

Perception is the truth in information warfare over farm laws

  • The Chinese were among the first to recognise the role of information warfare to weaken the adversary from within
By Shishir Gupta, New Delhi, Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON FEB 04, 2021 01:42 PM IST

Imelda Marcos, wife of former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, in the 2019 documentary-drama “The Kingmaker” says: “Perception is real, the truth is not.” The information warfare over three farm laws, fought over VPNs and global aggregators and news platforms, fought through celebrity influencers, and powered by lobby groups is yet another demonstration of this.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Chinese were among the first to recognise the role of information warfare in weakening the adversary from within by using fronts such as the United Front Work Department to generate paid networks in other countries. The use of money was also quite evident from the involvement of Norway-based networks in so-called dispute resolution in South Asia at the same time. While Chinese intent is understandable, the intent of Scandinavian networks in South Asia was part of a larger game plan. In both cases, money acted as a lubricant. The role played by Pakistan-Turkey orchestrated digital media post abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019 is well documented. So is the role played by Chinese state media in psychological operations against the Indian Army and government after May 5, 2020 PLA aggression on the north banks of Pangong Tso.

This gives rise to the question: Is India and the government prepared to deal with the perception onslaught? The answer is a flat no – despite the fact that the current political dispensation in Delhi is itself no stranger to managing perception and image. There are several reasons for this.

One, all servers of these global internet platforms and news-aggregators-turned-editors-and-publishers are based in either the US or Europe. This means that India, despite having framed relevant IT laws cannot make these firms accountable. The result: large technology firms pretty much decide what people see online and what they don’t; who gets to express their opinions, and who doesn’t.

Two, the role of lobby groups in promoting a certain perception or creating a global outrage against India is underestimated by the South Block, which, with a few exceptions, suffers from an imperial past. It is like the Indian military, which wants to buy more tanks in the age of stand-off laser weapons. So, while Indian adversaries such as China and Pakistan hire lobbyists or sponsor chairs in global think-tanks, Indian law prohibits the hiring of paid networks to the counter digital narrative.

Also Read: How #IndiaTogether became top trend after Rihanna's tweet on farmers' stir

Three, Indian embassies in the west have hired lobbyists firms but only to promote bilateral relations and not to counter negative propaganda. Weaned on the non-aligned narrative of the past century, Indian diplomats, again with a few exceptions, are still to come to terms with the new media and medium. Perhaps that is the reason why action against Chinese Confucius Institutes and prior approval for MoUs between universities of countries sharing land borders with India is still work in progress despite a July 15 red flag by intelligence agencies.

Four, Indian security agencies and police are still to absorb the changes in the virtual world, where VPNs make the task of locating the cyber adversary very difficult and even friendly countries do not share critical cyber technologies. The fact is that the Indian offensive capabilities are extremely limited, and the budget restricted as compared to even countries such as Turkey, leave alone the US, Russia and China.

Five, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting is perpetually under stress, especially when it comes to dealing with the digital world. Decisions to make large technology companies accountable for content is a technical, legal, social, and diplomatic issue, and even now, different standards apply to digital news media and print news media, which is accountable to the last word.

Six, one of the ways to counter disinformation and information is to have a counter-narrative. While the political parties in power use their own cyber warriors to fight this battle, the government’s counter-narrative is the job of the Press Information Bureau. PIB is still caught in a time warp of an era gone by where the print was King. Today, the order stands reversed and digital media is supreme.

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