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How misinformation is used in various fields

SAM SPECIAL-10-02-2021

One of the oldest and foremost proponents of using misinformation as a tool of politics (and economics) is the 24 centuries old “Arthashastra”. A complete course handbook on how to run a state, it also details devious means to accomplish one’s ends. An extensive manual for conducting subversion, Arthashastra is the earliest known exponent of hybrid warfare, which Modi has finessed to spread lies and subterfuge into a fine art. 

Arthashastra’s author, Kautilya (or Chanakya as he was also known) suggested that in order to sow discord and dissension as well as to mislead the enemy, the use of disinformation, propaganda and lies to reach political ends is a must.

Every and any information you need is available to anyone with a computer with internet access. Depending on the intentions of the feeder, the information can be confusing, misleading or straight-forward wrong, true or manipulated. How is the common person expected to judiciously sift through information to judge whether it is right or wrong? Misinformation is called ‘fake news’

The most notorious user of misinformation was Hitler’s propaganda minister Josef Goebbels who developed a full ‘science’ of propaganda, including its careful timing, its easy comprehension, appeal to emotion and the need for multiple repetitions as to tie it down in the heads of the public. The electronic age has force-multiplied the opportunities for misinformation, by hacking into webpages and inserting them with fake information so as to make them look real. Specially programmed social robots (social bots) could create a buzz in social networks.

Fake news—news articles that are intentionally false and designed to manipulate people’s perceptions of reality—have been used to influence politics and not only to promote commercial advertising. It has also become a method to stir up and intensify social conflicts. Stories that are untrue or half-truths and that intentionally mislead readers have caused growing mistrust among people. In some cases, this mistrust results in incivility, protest over imaginary events, or even violence. 

This rips apart the fabric of social life, turning neighbour against neighbour, People and organizations against each other. Many foreign governments use fake news for different reasons. First, they intensify social conflict to undermine people’s faith in the democratic process and people’s ability to work together. Second, they distract people from important issues so that these issues remain unresolved. And furthermore, disinformation is used by the opposition to defame governments and get political mileage. 

Social media has brought opportunities for manipulating information to a new level. With data acquired from 87 million Facebook users about a person’s likes, without the users’ knowledge or consent, Cambridge Analytic was able to predict people’s political preferences. Donald Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, coordinated this information to target political advertisements and memes on Facebook, focussing mainly on discrediting Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and influencing Americans on a number of pro-Trump issues. 

Often inflammatory, sensationalistic, sometimes violent, and false messages are sent. This strategy is part of the political tool kit of governments and politicians, undermining the trust of the citizens in the government and its institutions and in democracy as such. Consider the scurrilous social media campaign resulting in the Capital riots on January 6 in Washington DC? and then Twitter blocking President Trump’s account?

Fake news in international politics has become part of a new cold war. They are used to demonize and badmouth other countries. Look at the smear campaigns launched by the West against China, Russia, Iran, and vice versa. Lies and disinformation have become part of hybrid warfare, used for many years during the cold war era. It has never been acknowledged by the users. Waleri Vasilyevitch Gerasimov, Russia’s Chief of General Staff, came out with this openly in an article in 2013 where he declared: "Wars are no longer declared, and once they have begun, they run according to an atypical pattern. Non-military means are more important than ever, in some cases even more important than weapons”.

Wars are not necessarily won by those with more weapons but rather by those who control information. Why have the British re-activated World War II’s 77th Brigade, the Chindits, famous for irregular warfare, this time with electronic warfare specialists as soldiers? 

Fictitious messages are dangerous. They exploit the functional logic of social networks. Users can get upset at any time. Certain hot topics can be effortlessly instrumentalized: the fear of alienation, abuse of power, questions of war and peace. When it is no longer clear what is false and what is true people lose confidence in the State. Mistrust is a poison that can destroy any society. Using fake news, poison is injected in small doses. It does not always have to be a white lie. More effective is fake news that contains a grain of truth, a half-truth given a twist in another direction ie embellishing facts with lies. Some governments use fake social media posts to keep citizens happy by manipulating statistics and distract them from real issues. 

While motivations for using fake news may vary, fake news consistently undermines citizens’ ability to participate in the governance of their country and make important decisions on the fate of their nation.

Consider the malicious Indian propaganda using the Arthashastra method about China and CPEC, quoting from my article on India’s hybrid warfare: “Options for Pakistan” of July 3, 2018:“An anti-CPEC propaganda containing misconceptions and misleading or deceptive statements: (1) Myth: Chinese military bases on Pakistan’s Coast. Fact: total fabrication, no such bases (2) Myth: Pakistan a Chinese colony. Fact: History confirms colonialism and imperialism are legacies of Western countries (3) Myth: Exploitation of resources will execute demographic changes. Fact: CPEC investment guarantees growth of Balochistan (4) Myth: Lack of security for Chinese because of law, and order situation. Fact: 15,000 personnel in two Special Security Divisions (SSD) for CPEC projects. (5) Myth: Pakistan’s rising trade deficit with China. Fact: China’s competitiveness makes US trade deficit multiples more, a whopping US$347 billion. (6) Myth: Chinese labor and workers will render Pakistani workers jobless. Fact: only ten thousand Chinese nationals living in several camps (7) Myth: CPEC a thriving ground for trans-national terrorism. Fact: Bringing prosperity CPEC will reduce space for terrorists and thus exposure to extremist teaching and elements. 

According to a Geo TV report, Benazir Shah and Zarghoon Shah filed a report in 2019 about PML (N)’s Strategic Communications Cell, dubbed as “Maryam’s Media Cell”, established in 2013 in the PM’s House with 38 employees, some later put the figure rising to 300. The cost in 2013, a whopping Rs. 40 million per month directly from the PM’s “discretionary grant” which was Sharif family-specific controlled by Maryam in a page out of Uncle Modi’s handbook Arthashastra. Maryam unleashed the team to smear rival leaders like Imran (or perceived opposition like the Army). It was quite brilliant in fact till with the offending meme maligning the Army in line with Indian propaganda Maryam crossed the fail-safe line! 

The most effective way to counter fake news’ is to only trust something once verified. This becomes difficult when tech giants have their own agendas. Addressing WEF’s Virtual DAVOS Summit, Russian President warned tech companies not to compete with States. He correctly said it is unclear where the line is between a successful global entity and attempts to control society.

Some of the tech giants and telecom companies are the new version of the East India Company. Putin cited the rally in Washington DC which led to the Capitol riot as being controlled through messages on Facebooks, Twitters, Instagram, etc. In fact TikTok in Russia has emerged as a popular platform for the youth to express their political views. Social media must be reined in by devising tough laws and implementing them, a tall order given the media’s rich and powerful lobby. 

New "draconian" rules aimed at giving power to authorities to censor digital content, like the "Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2020", were framed under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA). Maintaining the "draconian" data localisation requirements will damage the ability to access the free and open internet. AIC members IT giants Facebook, Twitter and Google threatened leaving the country and making their services unavailable to Pakistani users and businesses. The hue and cry and extensive lobbying made the govt decide to back down and review the proposal. ‘Freedom of expression’ is the cover under which anti-Muslim hate speeches poison global societies and disturb peace, promote violence and terrorism. Such an understanding of ‘freedom of expression’ is NOT a human right! 

Fighting the legacy of terrorism that the Afghanistan war has left behind, Pakistan needs data localization for hate speeches, fake news and outright communication of terrorists, ie if the global community means business in eradicating terrorism and fake news. 

What to talk of Imran Khan being targeted by Maryam’s merry band of liars, whether it is President Biden in the US or President Putin in Russia, they have all been subjected to fake, motivated news facilitated by tech Giants. A global alliance must press social media giants to change their rules or be replaced by alternative social media platforms.

The recent decision of WhatsApp to change its privacy policy and share personal information of users with Facebook has raised a storm among users. Users in EU countries are secure from this because of tough EU legislation. EU’s history of taking action against Facebook is the model to be followed! 


(The writer is a defence and security analyst).