Kargil was the first war on the subcontinent beamed live into our living rooms via satellite, bringing in new dimensions to warfare. Near real time dissemination of information from the war zone made people hungry for more details, and faster. This led to a feeding frenzy amongst the video journalists, a rush to be closer to where the action was. War was turned into a voyeur sport. Each reporter also wanted to be the first with ‘breaking news’, even if it meant talking about operations still in progress, or even being planned. The unfortunate consequence of this was leakage of information to the enemy, putting soldiers’ lives and success of impending operations at risk. The army hierarchy, with very little prior experience in dealing with television crews, and with more important things than ‘media management’ on their minds with a war on, probably didn’t even realise the damage being caused until much later.
Twenty years later, yet another dimension has been added to this milieu. Interactivity. The current situation, if it escalates into a full blown conflict, will be the first time war is streamed from and onto millions of smartphones and laptops. From being passive consumers of news, ordinary people have become active creators of opinion and influencers of sentiments. War has thus become a ‘participative sport’.
But there’s a catch – while pretty much of a long distance sport for the stimulus hungry netizens, it remains a matter of life and death for the soldiers, sailors and airmen who are at the forefront. And no, they aren’t computer generated video game characters who can re-spawn when you restart the game.
Social media has put tremendous power in your hands. The anonymity, coupled with instantaneous and wide reach afforded by social media platforms makes the potential for harm caused by injudicious exercise of this power unlimited. Shooting a video of a military convoy passing by and posting it online may make you feel cool – like you are a part of the country’s war efforts. But the same video can be accessed and analysed by the enemy, giving him valuable intelligence.
While most might act out of ignorance but no ill intent, it also enables some people to propagate their own agendas, which may be detrimental to national interests. Political biases, personal hatred and vested interests can be disguised as righteous concern and propagated in an attempt to pressurise the government into taking hasty decisions or the opposition into taking an injudicious stance.
If war does break out, you will be bombarded with ugliness. War has always been an ugly business, but only so for the direct participants. Those sitting in the comfort of their homes were shielded from the gory and exposed only to the glory. All that has changed. Social media will be used as a potent propaganda and psychological warfare tool by the enemy. The images of dead bodies, videos of prisoners of war will be circulated widely. War could be long drawn, with invariable highs and lows. You need to brace yourself for that. Maintain a balance between euphoria and despair – either won’t last long.
And remember, the enemy could be all around you in cyberspace. Misinformation propagated by pseudonymous and anonymous accounts, and even official accounts of the enemy, is par for the course. Rumours will abound. People around you will take pot shots at you. Just because you feel strongly for your country, there may be some who mock you to go and fight at the borders. Taking pot shots at fellow countrymen who’s opinion you may differ with isn’t going to help the war effort. The armed forces has all the people required, and winning the war is more important that winning an argument on social media.
So if you do join the war as a long distance participant, make sure you’re fighting for the right side. You can do that by following some simple rules. First and foremost – trust your armed forces, and by extension, the government that’s acting on their advice. Now is not the time to make them toe the line YOU think is right. They have far more information than you – and all of it authentic. They also have a far better understanding of the situation and consequences of various decisions. And, at the end of the day, they also have to bear the burden of responsibility for their decisions.
Secondly, don’t make the enemy’s job easier by posting any information about our own forces – however innocuous it may seem to you. Don’t forward or share any information unless you are completely sure it is from an authentic source. Or better still – avoid forwarding anything for the time being. After all, your friends have access to the same sources that you do.
War is tough enough without cyber warriors and keyboard commandos making it tougher for the soldiers and decision makers. Remember that the next time you tweet or forward a Whatsapp message.
A former Army officer, now a Learning and Development consultant, Author of ‘Delhi Durbar 1911 – The Complete Story’, ‘Riding the Raisina Tiger’, ‘Brave Men of War – Tales of Valour 1965’, ‘In the Line of Fire’ and ‘Academy – Bonded for Life’. He was also part of the panel engaged by Ministry of Defence for writing official history of India’s participation in First World War. Follow Rohit on Twitter @ragarwal