Social media tools have become powerful platforms for communication. Currently, they are rather too loosely governed to protect the interests of the State from a security lapse with terrorists using the same media for their ends. The author, after an analysis of the prevalent status, offers a few solutions that protect both the individual and the state
National Interests and Social Media – Covert Engineering!
A quick look at discourses reveal how uncivil some of the online discussions have become, yet few understand the national security risks present in our social media environment. The threat of hacking by terror organizations or state/non-state actors should be keeping our government and cyber security experts up at night. The widespread usage and dependence on a large number of social media platforms leaves the country vulnerable to psychological warfare, as we see when certain topics of discussion come up. A regular and in depth reading of various social media platforms will easily show us how coordinated information campaigns are conducted online to undermine and delegitimise government initiatives and progress made in civil society. An alarming trend of intense vitriolic and distrustful debates has been observed along with a general lack of politeness. This can evolve as a national security threat, with the reader having been pushed into a highly emotional state of mind, he or she may not realise, “online bad behaviour/harassment” and its detrimental impact. Principle elements of psychological warfare includes the deployment of narratives, where influencers undermine our ‘civilization, identity, interests and will’ by creating unnecessary confusion, leading to political and social divides. As seen recently, the videos posted by a few disgruntled soldiers of the Armed Forces and paramilitary establishments enabled the success of such narratives. The media and our neighbours have effectively exploited this. The obligation for protection lies not only with the government but also with social media companies and the common man who uses their platforms.
Behavioural norms are defined for online interactions. What is observed is that people find it easy to step outside the borders of civility in the virtual world. Strengthening our structural and behavioural norms in the virtual space is important as a first step in cleaning up an environment ripe for exploitation and manipulation.
Personally, I have found five points very effective for civilized discourses online and also to decrease our vulnerability to national security threats. A lot of people feel that social media narratives may not seem as real or as dangerous as a pistol or a bomb. However, as a tool of social engineering, it demands just as much vigilance and preparation. In fact, at times, more caution must be exercised, because violence can start not because of a face to face instigation, but, also a virtual one.
Organisational Responsibility. ‘We are just a technology company’. This cannot be the standard excuse for technology companies that have created social media platforms for people to interact. One cannot be absolved of ethical and moral responsibilities because you are ‘just a technology company’. Such companies would do well to remember a couple of things. One, when they created such platforms, they never ever anticipated that terror organizations would use the same platform to propagate their business of terrorism. Second, when these companies have users across the world, it does become the moral responsibility of the company to keep in mind security interests of the countries where they have a presence. Imagine a company losing a market share only because you focused on retaining your business at any cost.
Keep Trolls in Check. Governments and organizations hire trolls for their own purposes. We also see others who are rank amateurs simply creating discord online for personal or political purposes and enjoying it. Both are toxic to virtual discourses. Trolls that are anonymous and with real names spoil the process of useful interaction for other earnest people online. We lose a great debate only due to trolling. Social media platforms must be more amenable to such complaints and willing to shut down those abusive accounts. However, shutting down is only a partial solution. Social media platforms should also do more to manage the rights of anonymous users. Anonymous users having legitimate societal purpose must be protected, so they share their viewpoints with the public at large. However, there is a huge difference between them and those who intrude uninvited into third-party conversations to create discord or cast doubts on facts. Can social media platforms look at restricting users from entering conversations they have not been invited to take part in – anonymous or otherwise. Social media should never become such a permissive playground that they forget to monitor online behaviour more effectively.
Starve the Trolls. Earlier I used to notice that when subjected to extreme levels of abuse online, many prominent users feel obligated to fight back, either to assert the truth or to ridicule their tormentors. No matter how good it feels momentarily, this is negative engagement. When someone with 500,000 followers or friends engages a troll with 50, they increase the visibility of the troll and make them more relevant. Skewing others’ perception of online interactions such negative engagements create the feeling that social media is even more dominated by trolls. Far from being poorly behaved critics, such trolls have chosen to become either willing partners or ‘useful idiots,’ for certain kinds of propaganda in our country.
Today, however, I see discerning users blocking such online harassers. In addition to ignoring trolls, social media users need to clamp down on their quick-firing temper and count to ten before exploding in digital outrage. An unthinking, reactionary mindset is guaranteed to escalate a discussion into a debate, and a debate into a full-blown virtual fight, leaving a bad taste for everyone concerned. The golden thumb rule here, how would you react/respond to such statements in a crowded room or if you were physically present with a group of people? Lowering one’s ‘online blood pressure and emotional temperature’ reduces the ability of outside interests to exploit discord.
Protect the Right User. It is important that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have some common definitions of what constitutes abuse, harassment, harm and inciting violence. Their hands-off philosophy does not help when complaints are logged in by users. Their unwillingness to take action has led to increase in anti-social behaviour online. While respecting and quantifying the lines between disagreement and harassment, companies should be quicker to step in when abusive behaviour is in evidence. Platforms should give the individual user more control over muting and blocking harassers from their online conversations.
The Internet’s lack of clear behavioural norms amplifies differences and contributes significantly to our vulnerability in terms of narratives and social engineering. It has become common place for a lot of people to lead double lives – online and offline. Stronger norms of behaviour are critical today as social media has become an everyday/every hour tool. We risk weakening behavioural norms for face-to-face human interaction. As Obama noted in his farewell address, “If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them real life.”
Dealing with Fake News. Negative news spreads like wildfire. Fake negative news, even more so. What the social media companies have to understand is that there is absolutely no gain in allowing demonstrably fake news reports to spread like wildfire. By allowing it to spread, social media companies are enabling an environment where social engineering can thrive and opinions negatively manipulated and societal divides exploited. How does one agree on cohesion when we do disagree on the same source of facts? Reducing our National Security Risk Profile. Cleaning up our act on online discourse does not have to result in stark sterility or boring interactions. Basic civility, politeness and accountability must never be forgotten in passionately heated debates in the virtual world. Yet, it is true that in face-to-face interactions, we use fewer swear words, fewer threats, harassment or violence. A rational human being always looks for the middle ground of incremental improvements. This also helps in reducing our national security risk profile.
Socially engineered narratives being deployed by anti-social, negative propagators attack and weaken the fabric and cohesiveness of our national interests. Civilising our social media discourse is crucial to reduce our openness to manipulation through such narratives.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of BharatShakti.in)