In the times of cheap internet and touch screen mobile phones, social media has become an integral part of our daily lives. It can also become a very powerful tool for us to share the soldiers’ stories of happiness, sorrows, valor, love and many more. Eventually, the social media has become the quintessential friend that has helped us in establishing an emotional bond with the civil society, in turn keeping the faith of people in Indian Armed Forces. Advances in technology and 24×7 accessibility to mobile devices connected to the world wide web together with Indian society’s acceptance of social media in general, have drastically altered how information is spread and how people, organizations, and government entities communicate.
There has been a sincere effort from the defence fraternity too, to engage with netizens and spread positivity of the forces amongst the general public. The social media has proven to be a boon for the unknown uniformed Brave hearts whose tales of sacrifices and valor came into limelight due to the general acceptance and spread of social media amongst the Indian Society. The Public Relations officer (Defence) Navy, Army and IAF of various commands and States, Centrally the Additional Director General Public Information (@ADGPI), Spokes Person Navy (Indian Navy) and Indian Air Force – (@IAF_MCC) are the wheels behind Indian Armed Forces’ social media presence.
The viral and immediate spread of various data and information pertaining to the Armed forces does give sneak pick into the functioning of Military Public Information department and their sharing pattern of information and material material including photographs and videos for public information with various entities like Defence Correspondents, Defence Enthusiasts and above all directly amongst general public.
But, there is a catch. The information that is shared with the defence correspondents by the ‘Defence sources’ is the key to the careers of those scribes and help them in earning their daily bread. In some cases, the journalists being wholly dependent upon source of information from within the forces are not able to bring factual information to the fore. Instead, they have to willingly or unwillingly become part of a vicious circle.
It is a known fact that Major General Satbir Singh’s One Rank One Pension protests and propaganda against the government had support from some people in high echelons from within the forces.
So are the half-truths regarding Non Functional Upgradation and the Rank restructuring debate are the result of social media activism of some of the high honchos in uniform.
AFSPA petition by more than 300 soldiers reached media and was debated on Television channels even before the matter came into knowledge of the Army top Brass. The petition is a clear attempt save a certain commanding officer. The soldiers involved, probably knew nothing about the petition but got themselves tangled in the legal battle after being coerced illegally by their superiors.
It was reported in media that the Army Chief was “annoyed” by the AFSPA petition was also quoted saying, “Serving personnel going out of the way sets a wrong precedent. There is a system for it, and the Army has always been with the soldiers on it,” The General Rawat was particularly scathing in his remarks on officers of the JAG branch. He said, “These lawyers had misled the officers and soldiers to make sure that they had cases to fight after their retirement and he did not approve of the way serving personnel approached the court in their Individual capacity.”
As per prevalent rules of the forces such activism against the government of the day amounts to mutiny against the state and warrant immediate and strict disciplinary actions against individuals involved. Still, no action is taken against those who have broken the line of discipline in the services. Instead, we are branding a poor Tej Bahadur Yadav demanding Daal and awarding summary court martial an dismissal from service to Jawans like Lance Naik Yagya Pratap and late Lance Naik Roy Mathew who dare to stood up against Rank Apartheid and inhuman practice of batman as, ‘Mutineers’!
This veteran has seen instances of special propagation of officers’ martyrdom and negligence of Jawans deaths in the line of their duties by omitting their names / photos / family photos from official / unofficial shares. (This aspect is too sad to be discussed in detail.)
Misuse of Social Media
Interactions over social media make up a major part of our daily online communication, so when Soldiers are killed or go missing in action, it can be hard to turn off the flow of information distributed through social media platforms. While it is difficult to prepare for tragedy, it is important to keep in mind that social media can play a role (good or bad) in the handling of a serious illness, injury or death. It is imperative that any commissioned officer should not become part of the problem by adding to the rumors and speculation when there is a report of an injury or death. Information about ‘Killed In Action’ individuals must not be released before the next of kin is officially notified.
An official message regarding last rites of Late Major Mukund Varadarajan, AC and Late Sepoy Vikram Singh, SC who had martyred in an operation in Kashmir on 25 April 2014 was spread in social media by officials of a military installation from Kashmir. The whatsapp message actually undermined Operational Security by revealing the names of martyred soldiers even before an official communication has been released by the Army and had reached to the family.
This year on 18th March 2018 at 09.30 AM, the Additional Directorate General of Public Information (ADGPI) of the Indian Army released a video on their twitter handle, alerting netizens about threat of Chinese hackers. The video was very informative as it provided the entire world a snick peek into whatsApp groups that ADGPI officers are members of.
The said video provides us with a fair assumption that the whatsapp shares and latest updates are also directly shared with the following:
• Group of individuals, popularly known as ‘Defence Enthusiasts’ who are very active in media and social media, also are closely connected with certain military honchos.
• As seen from the video; with various WhatsApp groups of defence enthusiasts, who run many popular propaganda pages on various social media platforms (sharing happens via WhatApp). Such as: 1A for CDS AFCAT, Know your Air Force, SSB Crack, SSB STRICT PRACT.., SSB GROUP DISCUS.. NDA ASPIRANTS, and Crack SSB as seen in the video.
The video also notifies existence of a number of whatsApp groups where senior officials such as, defence PROs are sharing pictures, videos and other information as part of the officers’ aggressive media and social media policy. The above online activism looks like a part of the officer corps stratagem to curb the flow of negativity that occasionally flows in media about some of their questionable actions.
Questions arise that whether, such social media activism of these officials whom the media sometimes quote as ‘sources’, is sanctioned from the Ministry of Defence or not? Because, in a democracy such as India civil supremacy is the key to keep our democratic values intact. And particularly for each of the uniformed officers, their every action is answerable to the elected representatives of people.
India is not Pakistan where Allah, Army and America run the show. The general public with their collective voting power are the rulers of this nation. Therefore, every action by the uniformed public servants should also be within the frame of rules laid down in the military manuals and law books of the country and also in the larger interest of the society. No individual who is on payroll of the Government of India can be allowed to propagate his own cause at the expenses of the Government and the common man of this country.
Apart from the Defence Correspondents who are responsible enough and are actually the flag bearers of the invaluable fourth pillar of democracy, whereabouts of most of the above beneficiaries blessed by the PROs with first hand social media access of defence matters are not known, neither to the Ministry of Defence nor to the general Public.
One can sincerely hope that our military honchos are not endangering the state’s security while trying to gain sympathy and praise for themselves by sharing videos, photographs from across three services with their friends and families, journalists and defence enthusiasts.
The good old times are long gone, when camera was not permitted inside military installations. At present the services have become so much, tech and media savvy for the want of publicity and image building that has become integral part of modern day cyber warfare that all the three services and Para-military forces have their presence in most of the social media platforms, where one finds an update every few hours.
In order to keep the defence reporters and defence enthusiasts to write positively about them, the military officials try really hard and go extra miles to keep the third parties satisfied in their unending quest for news and updates.
Does every Defence PRO and officials who share photographs and other information about the defence forces operations, activities, incidents and actions understand the gravity of the information that continuously flows through their smart phones? Has matters pertaining to national security become such a cheap commodity that can be compromised even by low ranking Defence – Public Relationship Officers and high ranking military officials posted in sensitive posts? Why, we still donot have a Central and Comprehensive National Cyber Security Policy for the Armed Forces?
Defence enthusiasts are knowingly or unknowingly leaking top secret information, Videos of troop operations and Photographs of Military Operations and installations gathered by themselves or from the above sources. They have also been bragging about their know-how of Militaryand posting the photos, videos and information online simply to drive traffic to their pages for popularity and money.
The officers of the forces the must be aware all the time that whenever they are logging in to a social media website or app, they still represent the Indian Armed Forces. The forces need to develop a social media code of conduct that implies equally on officers as well as Soldiers.
It’s difficult to build an open-source picture of foreign espionage operations against India, the authorities appear to keep the trials of such espionage cases, away from public and media glare to save themselves from embarrassment.
In the recent past, the Army chief has been very vocal about how the enemies of the country use social media for their own benefits. Earlier this year, he warned his forces about the misuse of social media by those with propaganda. Last year, he had stated that social media is being used to mislead the youth of the country.
Social media is in a true leveler. It doesn’t discriminate between two users, be it an officer (oppressor) or his sewadar (the oppressed). It feels good that the Army Chief has accepted that a ban on social media will not work, instead its usage should be brought under certain guidelines, Do’s and Don’ts to avoid imminent dangers from misuse, violations and release of any sensitive information.
We also have to develop thorough guidelines in order to protect classified and unclassified information from miscreants. Our adversaries constantly look forward to get access to critical information about India’s military operations, whether they are in the planning process, being carried out or already completed. Data is the king in modern world and one insignificant looking social media post can end-up compromising our operational security. And, it is not the uniformed personnel only who are at risk of leaking such information.
As the flow of data and social media has evolved into a giant, it is imperative to see if the forces really have an official social media policy? No! One is not talking about the social media restrictions that are applied very-very stringently upon the Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen. This Veteran senior Sailor’s concern is rather huge. Factually speaking, the senior officers are the one who are privy to sensitive information.
Enemy spies are able to take advantage of the explosion of internet connectivity. The digital Indian state is now a very leaky place and the most of the reported National security leakage cases have an online component to them. The biggest National Security challenge for us is of ensuring that sensitive information does not leak onto public servers.
Often, news about latest military technology is first available on online forums. Leaked photographs of new technologies are generally assumed to have the tacit approval of defence officials. Now, it seems that our adversaries are taking advantage of our tendency to unofficially reveal military secrets online.
Hundreds of ‘Defence enthusiast’ forums, pages and groups are scattered all around the social media space many of which can be used to recruit spies and to acquire internal secrets. Some of the military enthusiasts who get pictures and videos of new technological and tactical updates via ‘whatsApp share’ from defence officials and post them online, may also have been doubling as foreign agents.
For the past several years, so-called military enthusiast websites and forums have been publishing details of new weapon systems. These forums frequently boast of our military advancements as part of the growing nationalist trend. In recent times, more and more Indians are worshiping the forces for their loyalty and selfless service to the nation. In India, this kind of military worship is almost as popular as IPL cricket. Exclusive news, photographs and videos connected to military operations, exercises and technology generate so much of online traffic and in turn let the individual earn handsome amount of money for online popularity and views of the content.
In modern times of content savvy journalism that is dependent and linked heavily on media and social media alarm bells are ringing on military security. The distribution of military information and photos, have pressed the limits of earlier sedated and heavily guarded walls of military establishments. Senior military officials seem happy to accept some leakage of military information in order to successfully direct so much national enthusiasm toward military worship rather than focusing on core National issues.
Compared to worries about sophisticated cyber-espionage, the spy chronicles from the so called defence enthusiasts as seem to this veteran senior sailor are positively quaint. Yet, it’s no laughing matter; it can pose “severe danger to national military security.” As we are seeking out serious social media control reforms, possibility of online spy chronicles may cause the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval to rethink approach towards online military forums.
I would like to request citizens and officers to remove geographic and other sensitive information while taking photographs of Defence Airports, Naval Ships and IAF Aircrafts, as this information might be used by enemy spy agencies. It is always advisable for military to maintain certain decorum and also safe and respectable distance from the general public, be it in cyber space or in real life.”
Views expressed are personal.