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Tuesday June 06, 2023

Intersection of digital media and hybrid warfare: How to prepare?

February 13, 2023

Non-military tactics are becoming increasingly commonplace in today's conflicts. Cyberattacks, information operations and the strategic use of financial resources to influence political outcomes all play a key role in many countries' diplomatic and security strategies.

As the world continues to evolve, nations must also adapt their strategies in order to remain competitive and secure.

Historically, the military has placed a strong emphasis on soft power, smart power, public relations and peace promotion. However, as we move away from kinetic combat and towards ideological and ecological warfare, a number of novel concepts have emerged. These can be thought of as “known unknowns”, to borrow a phrase from former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The digital media has revolutionised the way we interact with our environment, allowing us to experience the world in a whole new way. It serves to facilitate narrative which can help reframe biases and improve public discourse. However, this also leaves audiences vulnerable to manipulation, creating a unique challenge for those tasked with protecting the public from malicious actors.

A noticeable trend is that thorough analysis is conducted before any action is taken, based on what audiences or potential story consumers read, watch and share.

Digital information/disinformation is the preferred method of distribution, with media producers incentivised to target a more sophisticated audience, such as policy experts, policy practitioners and politicians, in order to maximise their reach.

For instance, CNNisation produces more data, but not necessarily more accurate data, by focusing on selective recollection and occurrences of a particular region or consumer. This unrestricted dissemination of information in a decentralised social environment can potentially be hazardous. A few case studies can demonstrate this assessment.

The 2016 US elections marked the first instance of a cyberwar waged by Russian hackers, with far-reaching implications for democratic choices. Millions of people were left vulnerable to manipulation by a foreign power, a stark reminder of the potential dangers of the digital world and the importance of safeguarding access to free information. This case study serves as a cautionary tale of the potential consequences of unchecked cyber activity.

The United Kingdom was a prime target of Russia's disinformation campaign, which sought to exploit existing divisions in order to destabilise the country and its society. London felt threatened by the campaign, as it was aware of the malicious intent behind it. Russian disinformation efforts targeted far-right groups, the British Muslim community, and Scottish and Northern Irish separatists, accentuating existing fault lines between migrants and UK-born whites, traditional and more liberal Muslims, and unionists and separatists.

Those who monitor the UK disinformation landscape have observed that efforts appear to be event-driven, with activity typically spiking just before a major decision or vote, or after a potentially controversial event.

This was particularly evident in the Brexit referendum of June 2016 when officials noticed a marked increase in bot-generated tweets linked to Russia-originating Twitter accounts in the days leading up to the election, suggesting that malicious actors were actively attempting to influence public opinion and sway the outcome of the vote.

Furthermore, UK officials noticed a surge in Russian bot activity in the weeks following both the Skripal attack and the US-UK-French airstrikes in Syria, indicating a concerted effort by Russian bots to spread disinformation and sow discord in the aftermath of these events. This malicious campaign has been a cause for concern in the UK, as it has the potential to undermine the stability of the country and its society.

In the context of South Asia, the Indian intelligence agency (RAW) used the PathanKot incident to showcase their ability to employ digital media in hybrid warfare. Just three days after the PathanKot incident, RAW downloaded a picture from the 1980s of some Jihadis offering Fateha in a cemetery purportedly full of Kashmiri martyrs, re-photoshopped it, and used it as evidence. This image was then strategically disseminated from Twitter accounts of influential yet credible scholars and journalists in Washington, London and Islamabad with a three-hour time difference.

The congregation picture was then re-tweeted from all over Twitter, using both fake and linked accounts, quickly gaining traction and attention.

Pakistan was portrayed as the perpetrator of this incident, with public officials, media pundits and Pakistan's political establishment accepting this narrative without questioning the facts. Pathankot was astutely used as a catalyst for India's transition from a secular to a communal state, demonstrating the power of digital media in modern hybrid warfare.

The 2020 February 17 attack in Quetta is a prime example of how digital threats can directly affect Pakistan. Disinformation agents linked with a European-based entity called EU DisinfoLab have been exploiting the incident to spread ethnic fascism, which has been funded by anti-Pakistani states for over 50 years. This has allowed negative narratives to gain traction, with some even blaming the Pakistan Army for the attack.

This is a clear attempt to corner the state and discredit its security forces which had actually prevented the suicide attacker from entering a rally and saved countless lives. By leveraging digital media, these agents have been able to spread their malicious agenda and manipulate public opinion.

The free flow of information is a fundamental right, but it is also subject to constraints. Digital manipulation has a tendency to shape public opinion and state policy, and in the worst-case scenarios, it can even aid terrorism. This is why it is essential to have some form of control or regulation in order to protect the public from malicious actors using digital media platforms.

This section is taken from my lecture at the Pakistan Command and Staff College, Quetta. Jan Achakzai is a geopolitical analyst, a Balochistan politician and a former media and strategic communications advisor to GOB. He tweets @jan_Achakzai