In 1913, a socialist monthly in the US published a controversial cartoon showing the head of a prominent wire service pouring bottles of “lies,” “slander” and “prejudice” into the well of news. The Masses called it, “Poisoned at the Source”. In a world of accelerating interconnectedness a hundred years later, plugged into this source is a relentless social media conveyor belt. There are no bottles, but hashtags hidden in plain sight.
As two nuclear-armed nations teetered on the brink of war, familiar strangers on Twitter and Facebook timelines used trending hashtags to plot their positions on the social media battlefield. #FinalStrike, #DeclarePakTerrorState, #IndianStrikesBack, #PakStrikesBack, #SayYesToWar were just a few acts of digital blitzkrieg launched from the cyber trenches. From a distance it seemed nothing more than a distasteful pageant of “monkey see, monkey do” chest thumping. But two things stood out. First, it reaffirmed that social media has redefined the way news is traded up the consumption chain. While it is still far from replacing traditional news sources, social media has established itself as a dominant “discovery tool” for news. Now stories become hashtags before they become headlines in your daily newspaper with almost no breaks between breaking news to regain perspective and restore balance. Opinion, emotions and speculation now act as augmented reality filters for news, much like the ones for pictures on Instagram or Snapchat.
News is no longer all that is published, it is all that spreads. That’s why resources are increasingly dedicated to tell real from the fake. And that’s where a hashtag acquires the power of driving change in case of a #MeToo or getting weaponised when it propels #AllEyesOnISIS. Defence experts P W Singer and Emerson Brooking documented the use of this hashtag by ISIS as its fighters invaded northern Iraq. In LikeWar: Weaponsiation of Social Media, they wrote: “It became the top-trending hashtag on Arabic Twitter, filling the screens of millions of users — including the defenders and residents of cities in the Islamic State’s sights. The militants’ demands for swift surrender thus spread both regionally and personally….ISIS videos also showed the gruesome torture and execution of those who dared resist. And then it achieved its real-world goal: #AllEyesOnISIS took on the power of an invisible artillery bombardment, its thousands of messages spiraling out in front of the advancing force. Their detonation would sow terror, disunion, and defection.”
Closer home, as the rising fog of war rubbed its back against our internetted screens, every share or retweet with #BadlaKab, #ExposeDeshDrohis, #ExposePakLovers #BoycottPak, #PulwamaRevenge and others such had a real-world impact in shaping or distorting the narrative. After the IAF airstrikes across the border, the Pakistan army was quick to tweet its responses, while our forces acted risk-averse in sharing details. In between, there were information voids that were filled with fiction and conspiracy theories. So, while your information stream looked organic on the outside, it was constantly drip-fed with images, information nuggets, graphics, videos to define the narrative through government-friendly or unverified social media handles on either side. While all talk centered around a conventional war, what we witnessed were insidious charges in a “netwar”.
In the early 1990s, two political scientists with a leading US think tank, the RAND Corporation, offered a distinction between cyberwar — hackers attacking enemy’s economic and military capabilities online — and netwar, which they defined as information-related conflict between nations or societies aimed at “trying to disrupt, damage, or modify what a target population ‘knows’ or thinks it knows about itself and the world around it”. John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt said that “a netwar may focus on public or elite opinion, or both” and “may involve public diplomacy measures, propaganda and psychological campaigns, political and cultural subversion, deception of or interference with the local media.”
From videos of a “second IAF pilot captured by Pakistan”, which turned out to be fake, to contested pictures of a what was presented as a PAF fighter pilot killed after his F16 was downed in a dogfight, the hostilities in this information war continue unabated from both sides. Expect more shots to be fired from these cyber shadow lines from both adversaries. But remember, as Arquilla and Ronfeldt argued, “Deterrence in a chaotic world may become as much a function of one’s cyber posture and presence as of one’s force posture and presence.” And a netwar can also be “an instrument for trying, early on, to prevent a real war from arising”.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 15, 2019, under the title ‘Case Of Exploding Hashtags’. Write to the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org.