The latest conflagration across the India-Pakistan border, triggered by the February 14 suicide bombing attack in Pulwama, has set a new watermark for the two nuclear-armed neighbours. I have heard experts describe the recent exercise in brinkmanship as the closest the world has come to the Cuban missile crisis. I have also heard the opposite, that this may be the safest that both countries have been in their history of mutual animosity. The classic deterrence logic from nuclear game theory would suggest that the present state is the best solution to a region in a state of perpetual conflict: Either side has the ability to annihilate the other — and that awareness deters any meaningful escalation of hostility and flips both sides back to a peaceful equilibrium.
What is more, the impeccable logic can even rationalise why it is natural for each side to periodically poke each other in the eye. In the nuclear deterrence community, there is an idea called the stability-instability paradox: The overhanging threat of nuclear retaliation offers an insurance policy, which gives rise to moral hazard, a common problem in the insurance business. The safety net of insurance creates incentives for low-level risky behaviour. This helps explain a tendency towards proxy wars on the ground or dogfights in the air of the kind we witnessed recently.
But let’s not get too comfortable. All these arguments are pre-digital age theorising. The logic assumes that there are rational protagonists who are moving chess pieces on a chessboard and have a clear line of sight across the whole board. Digital media creates an alternative chessboard, out of sight of the main political protagonists. The players on this other board are non-state micro-actors — who are not in the command-and-control chain leading to the nuclear buttons. Technology permits them to broadcast messages, and push the pieces on the parallel board and at some point their configuration of pieces infiltrates action on the main chessboard, because the protagonists being political entities must respond to the moods of their constituencies, the micro-actors.
The magic of digital media is that it often introduces change through imperceptible moves, which then gather force over powerful transmission mechanisms and hop across different media, from television to Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook. Before long, there is a configuration of pieces on a board, an alternative narrative that has become so dominant that it is beyond the control of the protagonists.
False and fiery narratives, in particular, have a way of being buoyed by the logic of digital transmission. They get elevated and travel further, partly because people are motivated to send more extreme messages and the digital media companies profit from more eyeballs — and more advertising exposure — on these messages. Consider the aftermath of the Pulwama attack. From Pakistan came the video of an injured Indian pilot that was carried to millions across Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp.
This wasn’t the video of the real pilot who was captured but a clip of a different pilot taken from an old air show. On the Indian side, old video clips and even video games were put to re-use, accompanied by bellicose hashtags such as #SurgicalStrike2, #IndiaStrikesBack #TerroristanPakistan, #IndiasRevenge. When messages such as “Mess with the best, die like the rest”, from the likes of Ajay Devgn, with his 10.5 million Twitter followers, do the rounds, you can see how hashtags, memes and narratives can pick up momentum even if they have little to do with the facts. The Pakistani digital warriors, of course, had their own arsenal of hashtags: #PakistanStrikesBack, #PakistanZindabad and #PakistanAirForceOurPride. Each of these seemingly simple objects becomes a rallying cry that can bring millions together.
To be sure, the digital medium is a powerful force not just as a transmitter of narratives or as an organiser of hashtag tribes; it is also a force to be reckoned with as a cyber weapon. Pulwama, unsurprisingly, also led to a spike in cyber-attacks. The official website of Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was hacked and defaced as was the website of Union Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat. This follows a rather long tradition of cyber tit-for-tat between India and Pakistan, that pre-dates WhatsApp. As far back as 1998, Pakistani hackers had made their way into India’s Atomic Research Centre. Since then the attacks have only grown in volume and frequency.
For example, in October 2016, more than 7,000 Indian websites were hacked by the “Pakistan Haxors Crew.” In February 2018, over 250 websites in Pakistan were attacked, including the presidential website and the country’s railway ministry, by “Mallu Cyber Soldiers.” Over the years, targets have ranged from embassies to government ministries to a myriad others, including military sites, universities, airports and e-banking systems. The tools have included a mix of website defacement, spear phishing and malware. Such malware can activate webcams, steal data and take screenshots of victims’ computers. They are not just annoyances, they can compromise national security assets and even prevent essential systems from operating.
Things can get even worse. Digital attacks can be sophisticated enough to directly interfere with nuclear systems. Consider the case of Stuxnet, a highly sophisticated worm that infects computers and targets centrifuges for producing enriched uranium for nuclear reactors. Developed by the US and Israel, it was used to derail Iran’s nuclear weapons development programme. It is well understood that cyber-attacks will increasingly get more sophisticated and can potentially disrupt the command-and-control systems of a country’s nuclear arsenal or shut down energy grids or other essential components of the infrastructure. Many such attacks are conducted by hacktivist groups; some are agents of the protagonists, but not all. Many are independent actors — and that is the most worrisome part.
In other words, there are many ways to disrupt the clean calculus of nuclear deterrence in the digital age. Inadvertent nuclear launches could be triggered by reliance on false information and corrupted data or the failure of a major piece of infrastructure. Any of these could trigger a sense of impending attack and provoke a pre-emptive strike.
I have been trained in game theory, am a fan and am sold on the logic of nuclear deterrence involving “rational” actors. Ordinarily, I would recommend tucking that game theory textbook under the pillow and sleeping soundly. But the fact that there are close to 550 million Internet users between two nuclear-armed neighbours in the sub-continent would, I admit, give me reason to stay awake at night. To make matters even worse, governments do not quite understand how the digital platforms work and the social media companies have repeatedly failed to monitor, assert control and weed out false narratives or malware from being transmitted.
It is time that the players on the main chessboard, the policymakers on both sides of the Indo-Pak border, and the digital platform companies, Facebook, WhatsApp, Google and Twitter, that are enabling that other chessboard, wake up to a new crisis around the corner. This one could have implications even more serious than the ones about election misinformation or privacy breaches that dominated the headlines in the last year. It is hard enough playing chess on a single chessboard.
The writer is Dean of Global Business at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, founding executive director of Fletcher’s Institute for Business in the Global Context and a non-resident Senior Fellow of Brookings India. He is the author of The Slow Pace of Fast Change
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