Com. Mukesh Saini (Retd.)
The evolution of virtual world is moving at a pace of revolution in the real world. New structures of social interactions, financial transactions, cultural intermingling, audio-visual imageries and expressions are the main threads of this interwoven world.
Today a large section of people are living simultaneously in two worlds, a material world and a virtual world. What happens in real world has immediate and direct repercussion on the virtual world and vice versa. The primary driving force of our thought process, as an individual as well as part of society is primary driven by social media of the virtual world. Social media includes websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Google Hangout, Blogs, Hi5, LinkedIn, Whats App, We Chat, BBM, Youtube, etc. but specifically excludes websites run by main stream media. However there is a reasonable interconnectivity and flow of information between the two.
Social media is as difficult to define, as it is ever-changing in context and human interfaces. It can be broadly defined as internet enabled platform for synchronous as well as asynchronous interactions and networking to form and sustain human relationships by sharing emotions through contents, ideas, opinions, insights, experiences and perspectives. In comparison to other media platforms, social media puts “YOU” in the centre of the communication. And therefore it is so far the most powerful means of influencing human mind. These human relationships are not bound by any artificial boundaries created by the nation-states.
Human beings are social animals, they cannot survive a day without social life and interactiveness. That is why jail is a punishment where an individual is cut-off from his/her dear ones. Emile Durkheim, a social scientist has theorised time and space as fundamental dimensions of social life, however the emergence of the virtual world has challenged the paradigm of space-time relationship. Space has partially moved from the real world to flow of information on networks virtualising the whole globe into the immersive devices. Similarly, time dimension has also become irrelevant since the netisens can communicate synchronously, asynchronously or simultaneously. That is why young generation carries with it many immersive devices such as mobile phones, tablets, laptops, pads etc. to stay in contact with their friends, followers and leaders.
In social media based human interaction, there exists an implicit trust relationship in a group. This trust relationship has potential for abuse. It is generally assumed that as information is received from a trusted source, it must be genuine and true. For example in case of exodus of persons from north-eastern state from rest of the country was fuelled by horrific images from Myanmar but projected as if from Assam. These images were shared around on social media without verification, contributed to creation of mass hysteria. The lack of trust in the main stream media can increase the trust on false news on social media and this must be guarded.
An event can be fired and expand like a nuclear chain reaction leading to mass distribution and consumption of information. This is called ‘going viral’ in social media terminology. Information can go viral either through natural progression, which is rare and quality of such information required being exceptionally high on emotional quotient. Information can also go viral through artificial mechanism. Search engine optimisation techniques, bot – network exploitation and digital marketing techniques are used to artificially pump up the spreading of information.
Josph Goebbels, Nazi Propaganda Minister had said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Social media due to its inherent capability to be shared and retweeted without application of mind, by far is a near perfect tool for launching half-truth based propaganda. This can influence mind of masses, where “YOU” being centre of the social media universe, makes every person in the target population to assume such a lie as his/her own truth. US is spending more than Rs 1250 Crores on Operation Ernest Voice to create fake virtual persona to influence the conversation on social media including counter-racialisation (counter -fundamental Muslim thoughts) functionalities.
Despite all the hype it must be understood that the social media can only act as enabler; it requires some real world happenings to find a foothold. Imageries, videos and sounds of real world are necessary, later fake videos can be introduced. For example, in the case of mass hysteria in north-easterners, it found grounding only after some posters of fake imageries started appearing in some Urdu newspapers and mosques along with inflammatory speeches. Therefore to manage adverse impact of misinformation on social media there is a need to keep an ear on the activities without being intrusive and react with positive actions and social media.
The tools that propaganda operations (some listed below) can be effectively use.
p Using selective stories
p Partial facts or historical context.
p Reinforcing reasons and motivations for personal reasons
p Narrow sources of “experts” to provide insights into the situation.
p Demonising the “enemy” through pictures
p Using a narrow range of discourse, whereby judgments are often made without a context. The narrow focus then helps to serve the interests of the propagandists.
If a government peeps too closely into the social media activities, it breaches privacy, while a total hands-off approach might create a perfect breeding ground for misperceptions.
The government kneejerk reaction of banning social media arbitrarily or creating oversight capabilities without proper checks and balances has high potential of abuse especially for political purpose. Therefore there is need to create a social media management organisation. This organisation should not only depends technology-based solution but also have appropriate processes and procedures in place. These processes and procedures should be audited and the overview of audit report of social media management mechanisms should be made public every year. The detailed report may remain secret but not for more than 15 Years. Such a system should be placed under National Information Board (a 21 Secretary ranked members body, chaired by National Security Advisor)
(Note: Views reflected in the article are the personal views of the author and do not represent views of his present or past organisations)
(The writer is Head IT Security, Essel Group)