Dr Farrukh Saleem
Social media can be weaponised. The ‘war zone’ has expanded and social media is the new weapon of war.
There are some 60 million social media users in Pakistan-and the number is growing by more than 4 million a year, every year. Facebook, at around 40 million users across Pakistan, surpasses all other applications. Twitter and Instagram trail behind at around 4 million users each. Then there are Pinterest, YouTube, Tumblr, Snapchat, TikTok and Reddit.
Social media is reshaping the very character of war. There is absolutely no doubt that Pakistan’s adversaries, non-state and state-backed groups are using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, Tumbir, Snapchat, TikTok and Reddit to do two things: create fissures within the Pakistani society and spread civil-military mistrust. What the 60 million Pakistanis share is ‘deciding what happens on the battlefield’. What the 60 million Pakistanis ‘like’ is ‘deciding what happens on the battlefield’. Yes, 60 million Pakistanis have become witting or unwitting combatants in this war.
Pakistan’s enemies have taken their conflict with Pakistan to a new domain. Going viral is the new war. Weaponized social media messages are the new munitions-and ‘online sway is driving real-world power’. The definition of an ‘attacker’ has changed-and the attacker is at no military risk. Social media now determines what is the truth-or ‘at least what people believe to be true’.
The social media war zone is about speed and scale (imagine targeting 60 million Pakistanis at the speed of light). Minds are at war and battles have gone online. Pakistan has neglected the new battle-space for too long. We have failed to equip ourselves to fight back in this crucial battle-space. The European Union has created a protocol. Why can’t we? Countries around the world are creating public awareness campaigns. So should we. We managed to slow down the spread of Covid-19. This new threat is also a virus-and we must slow down its spread.
Like fighter aircraft, social media is a weapon. Unlike fighter aircraft, social media is cheap. Social media is now a preferred strategic weapon of mass disruption. Pakistan’s adversaries have employed professional networks of ‘troll farms’ to achieve three things: ‘influence, disrupt and usurp’.
Pakistan’s enemies are now using cocktails of ‘old-school information operations and digital marketing techniques’ in attempts to create fissures between the civilian population of Pakistan and Pakistan’s armed forces. We must identify and quantify super-spreaders. We must create “firebreaks to misinformation spreads and de-platforming those who deliberately and knowingly spread lies that are intended to harm” the Pakistani state and society. We must create an ‘emergency alert system’ because social media will determine the real-world outcomes of our conflicts and our wars.
Dr Farrukh Saleem is a senior columnist based in Islamabad.