On June 25, when eight CRPF troopers were killed in an ambush in Pampore in J&K by suspected LeT militants, the Twitter handle of the Army’s Udhampur-based Northern Command, @NorthernComd_IA, put out an update: “#JKOps Army kills two terrorists who fired upon CRPF convoy at Pampore, Kashmir Ops in prog. InjuredCRPF personnel being attended to @adgpi”.
Within minutes, another update followed: “#JKOps Update on Pampore ops. Injured CRPF personnel evacuated to hospital. Two terrorists killed in joint op by security forces @adgpi”.
The first update was not deleted. A third followed: “#JKOps Update on Pampore Ops. Two terrorists killed by CRPF in retaliatory action. Earlier tweet stands corrected. @adgpi”.
At the time of writing, the three updates, each contradicting the earlier one, were still on the Twitter page. Many Army officials assert — and they put out as evidence a video from the camera of a Cassper mine protection vehicle at the ambush site — that the terrorists were killed by 50 Rashtriya Rifles, but headquarters forced them to credit the CRPF. Senior officials admit, however, that the team handling the Twitter account should have been more careful while posting the updates.
“Northern Command has joined Twitter very recently and this CRPF incident is part of a sharp learning curve for them. You will see the difference soon,” an Army official said.
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Until last month, only headquarters in Delhi was on social media on behalf of the Army. The social media activity is run by ADGPI under the military intelligence directorate. On June 13, the two operational commands — Northern Command and Kolkata-based Eastern Command — were allowed to open their social media accounts. The other five commands, which are in a peacetime role, are not yet on social media.
Former commander of Northern Command Lt General (retd) H S Panag said “social media usage by Northern and Eastern commands is still at an experimental stage. It was an error of judgement by those tweeting in the Pampore case”.
Panag argued for a more proactive use of social media in Kashmir: “There are a large number of people in Kashmir on social media, and the official handle of Northern Command can be used for giving out authentic information and rebuttals. At some point, the Army will have to look at creating pseudo handles for covert warfare and counter-propaganda. After all, we used to earlier put up posters of wanted militants with the name of some other militant group as the one offering reward.”
The Army feels using social media serves a larger purpose in J&K. “Militants in Kashmir have been actively using social media to spread their message and it was high time for the Army to do perception management by showing its presence on the social media, and opening of the Twitter handle on which the senior-most officer in the state would respond is a step towards this direction,” an Army officer said when Northern Command signed up on Twitter.
“We look at social media as a means of communication. It was print, then we gave releases. When TV came, we started giving bites. With web, we created a website. Now it is social media, and we are present there,” a senior official said.
Panag said “the social media engagement of the Army is currently one-way traffic. People want social media to be interactive, that is the essential characteristic of the medium. You can do a lot without compromising operational security. Remember that the Israeli defence forces post almost minute-to-minute updates on social media.”
The audience of the Army’s social media engagement is both internal — defence services and the defence ministry — and external — the larger public. This can act as a “force multiplier” in wartime, an official said.