Virtual Bombs: The Weaponization of Social Media

Patrick Meschenmoser, Vienna

As tensions between India and Pakistan grow high again in the region of Kashmir, one phenomenon that has long been overlooked by many is getting more attention now: the weaponization of social media. Since they have gained their independence in 1947, territorial disputes have led to three wars and countless skirmishes between the two opponents. However, something seems to be different about the escalation in the Kashmir region now in late February 2019. At first glance, it seems like the battle is mainly fought in the air with both sides claiming to have shot down enemy aircraft. However, the most decisive fight might actually be fought on a virtual battlefield. While it remains unclear, how many aircraft have been brought down and by whom, videos and pictures published as proof of victory of either Indian or Pakistani forces seem to be widely doctored or put out of context. French news wire AFP, for instance, reports that two videos that were shared in many social media posts and later picked up by journalists “actually show a 2014 air show to mark Pakistan’s independence day” and not current events. CNN, in a more dramatic analysis, even sees “India’s and Pakistan’s ‘internet warriors’ pushing their governments” into a dangerous escalation. Who exactly is behind these activities remains unclear.

However, it’s not the first time that posts on social media lit the fuse of a virtual bomb used in the ongoing conflict between the two neighbours. Similar to Kashmir, India’s north-eastern state of Assam has seen conflict and violent clashes for decades. In August 2012, the conflict between Muslims and the indigenous and predominantly Hindu Bodos in Assam had escalated again. On social media, manipulated pictures had been posted depicting massacres both of Muslims and Bodos to fuel outrage and fear. In this tense situation, warnings popped up via Twitter and Facebook claiming that Muslims were planning attacks on North-Easterners throughout whole India to take revenge. The messages were forwarded amongst the community of Bodo students and workers. In the warnings, the Bodos were urged to go home to Assam and to leave cities like Bangalore and Pune before August 20, an official holiday for Eid, the festival that marks the Muslim month of fasting Ramadan. This gave the threat even more credibility. Immediately, a mass exodus of thousands of Bodos set in, trying to self-evacuate from these cities. Media reported fatalities and many injured as people tried to board trains to Assam that were already overcrowded by people in fear. India later accused terror groups in Pakistan to be behind the inflammatory social media posts.

This incident delivered a frightening demonstration of how new media can be turned into a weapon at minimal cost and exposure, in a virtual bomb with a remote detonator. In an atmosphere of uncertainty, fear and peer group pressure, only a tiny spark is needed to light the fuse. Social media can be turned into the perfect weapon of mass disruption. However, when used in a conflict between two nuclear armed nations, it doesn’t need a lot of phantasy to imagine that such an escalation could end up in the use of other, tremendously more destructive weapons.

Unfortunately, traditional media are often part of the problem rather than the solution, as current events in Kashmir show. Journalists don’t want to lag behind social media and use tweets and posts of supposed eyewitnesses in the absence of other sources, only provided – if at all – with the faint hint that this information should be considered unconfirmed. But even when the information is valid, social media users and journalists should be aware of their responsibility not to support terrorist activities. A perfect example being the Mumbai attacks in 2008, where the attackers not only coordinated their moves via social media but actively monitored information users shared on movements of the police forces. This enabled the terrorists to avoid encounters with anti-terror units and to redirect their attacks when necessary.

Authorities and emergency-planners need to take into account that new threats have emerged over the past years, threats that are virtual but the disruptive potential of which is enormous and hard to predict. And while some organizations are still wondering if and how they should engage on social media, a new generation of software already allows for a very sophisticated manipulation of video footage to produce so called “deepfakes”. If you imagine that you can take the recording of an address given by any head of state and turn his or her peace message into a call for war it becomes clear that such deepfakes can be a dangerously effective tool to amplify fear and panic or to just reinforce an agenda.

More than ever it will be decisive to rapidly respond to rumours and disinformation. Effective social media monitoring and coordination of all involved response organizations’ communication along the principle of “one message, many voices”, will be key, especially in complex federal systems. Contradicting messages will only increase uncertainty and confusion in an already explosive environment. Specific rumour response websites can contribute to unmasking any disinformation and to limiting its effects. However, they need to be prepared in advance and their use trained and exercised, as it is only a matter of time until the weaponization of the new media will be taken to the next level.

Added on 24 April 2019:
The government of Sri Lanka seems to be well aware about the weaponizing potential of social media and has blocked several platforms including Facebook following the attacks on Christians in April 2019. The New York Times wrote: “Officials blocked the platforms (…) out of fear that misinformation about the attacks and hate speech could spread, provoking more violence.” Of course, such measures are a grave limitation of the freedom of speech. However, the events in Sri Lanka show that governments need to be aware of the destructive potential of social media and how they can be used to aggravate terrorist attacks. It will be a delicate balancing act, especially for states with strong democracies, to weigh the freedom of speech against the state’s duty to prevent crime, terrorism and violence. Without proper preparation and exercising this will, most likely, not end well.