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Nupur Sharma issue: The aspects of social media and national security

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India is witnessing what social media experts call “the new media phenomena”  wherein print and electronic media platforms are picking up selective and popular content, trending issues etc. from social media platforms to engage their daily shows and even prime time debates. Many popular channels, newspapers, TV anchors etc. have their own social media accounts that keep posting out a huge content on a daily basis. This relationship of convenience and mutual benefit has helped both these dimensions of media grow their subscriber counts, but at the same time it has also created challenges for the safety and stability of our societies. These threats are visible in the form of, but not limited to: law and order problems, mass mobilizations, protests and riots, financial and infrastructural damage, national security threats etc.

Present Controversy

In the last few days, India has witnessed the potential of the social media in planning violent protests across the country, allegedly in reaction to factual and/or controversial comments made by Nupur Sharma, an ex spokesperson of the BJP on Prophet Muhammad.

These protests have been spontaneous in some places while in others like Kanpur,  there are reports that they have been engineered to disturb communal harmony by resorting to mob attacks on places of worships and stone pelting against civilians and security forces. Images and videos of religious sites being desecrated and people getting attacked have now become common place on social media applications in India. There’s a common question being asked everywhere now: “…..bhai desh me ye sab kya chal raha hai? …..”, and no one seems to have an answer to that simple yet intriguing question.

Once again, the ugly side of social media usage patterns and its implications on law and order maintenance and national security is being highlighted by these events.

These public riots test the local security infrastructure in terms of sheer numbers. A common pattern akin to the Shahin Bagh and Delhi riots is visible here,

where a large number of protestors mobilised themselves with the help of social media to plan and coordinate action against their perceived ‘targets’. Twitter trends, WhatsApp forwards and Facebook posts are filled with all kinds of content claiming victim status and opposing and branding the other side as the oppressor.

All of this triggers panic and disturbs the public psyche.

Such incidents snowball into a cyber-security challenge and expose the dark side of social media apps that could be exploited by anti-national elements and this requires immediate attention by the state security agencies.

At the socio-political level, the environment is damaged to such an extent that its hard to maintain a neutral position for anyone who usually stays out of such debates. If you are not picking any one side, you get branded as being antithetical to the cause or belonging to the opposite side; the branding happens almost immediately.

The current controversies started a few days after, a short clip of a TV debate involving Nupur Sharma and an Islamic cleric went viral, where both were seen defending their respective positions on religious issues and its portrayal in media and films. Nupur Sharma is said to have mentioned in the debate, “….why does no film show that Muhammad married Aisha at the age of 6 and had sex with her at the age of 9…..”, in response to the negative portrayal of Hindu gods and goddesses in Indian films and TV serials.

Nothing much happened till a few days after this TV debate, with the concerned TV channel even removing the entire video from its social media accounts, until the self proclaimed fact checker Zubair, who runs a ‘fact-checking’ platform by the name AltNews, posted a  short clip of this TV debate on his social media accounts and made it viral.

From there on, the clip spread across all the major social media platforms and all kinds of comments and shares started pouring in. The issue got highlighted so much so that even popular news channels and print media started writing on it, leading to the eventual suspension of the spokesperson.

This shows the dangers of operating in a digital age, wherein even if the original content is removed, it cannot be completely deleted from the cyber space. Some where, somebody may have access to this data which can be later used/misused as per will. It also cautions us against the behaviour one needs to adhere to while speaking on public platforms. While historically speaking, Nupur Sharma did not make a false statement, but the way she worded it did not seem to have gone down well with a certain community.

Probable Causes

Putting the words Mohammad and  sex in a single line and tone, prima facie seems to be the main source of controversy as people generally do not like the usage of the word ‘sex’ even in closed conversations, leave alone speaking it out on a national TV debate, which is watched by millions of people.

India, as it is, is a very volatile society and a high amount of sacredness and sanctity is ascribed to religious figures and symbols whose lives are perceived as to be the most pure and different from those of common folks. Nupur Sharma could have saved her case by using a more publicly palatable word like ‘consummation of marriage’ or ‘finalization of marriage’. Though that won’t have changed the facts on ground or historical facts, sometimes it is more about how you say/ do a particular thing, rather than what’s being actually said/done. It is one of the simplest and popular trick used by politicians, actors etc. if you have noticed, wherein they can get away by anything, just by using more sugar coated words. 

Effects /Consequences

More surprising was the enthusiasm shown by news media outlets like Al Jazeera, which is sponsored by the government of Qatar, and other few anti-India media outlets. Al Jazeera is known previously for being involved in a lot of controversies by its selective and highly biased portrayal of sensitive issues.

In the above example, Al Jazeera ran a twitter hash tag campaign #boycottIndianproducts, claiming that this is already becoming viral in the Arab world, something which is incorrect as this was not trending back then in Arab countries. This is how subtle propaganda by a state actor, done through a mercenary non-state actor works in today’s era of information warfare.

Al Jazeera news network has well educated anglicized yet, radical anchors like Mahdi Hassan, who are the forefront in playing the victim card unabashedly. When the Nupur Sharma controversy reached international media outlets, it was used by some countries to point fingers at India, questioning even its secular credentials, something that’s ironic for countries like Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Qatar etc. to do, they themselves being authoritarian states based on theocracy.

But that’s how the modern world is – a non issue can become a major issue for international embarrassment, in no time, specially when your adversaries are sitting on the fence waiting for an opportunity to bleed you to death by thousand cuts.

Al Jazeera fits into these equations very well as the oil economy of Qatar and other Islamic countries generates huge surplus on a daily basis, a small portion of which goes to such media agencies to keep the narratives of the so called ‘Islamic World’ alive at the global level.

Headquartered in Qatar, Al Jazeera usually calls for freedom of speech and expression, portraying itself as a champion of this cause, quite hypocritical for it to do so, as Qatar has no laws supportive to this position, neither it is a democracy. Certain sections of Kuwaiti society also were seen in support of Al Jazeera.

Other foreign media outlets were quick to re play reporting of AJ and inform their domestic audiences and vote banks as to how unsecular India has now become. The role of some anti-India foreign intelligence agencies in sponsoring some of these activities cannot be ruled out. This same news channel has otherwise remained silent on Uighurs in Xinjiang, Kurds killed by Turkey, condition of Ahmadias in Pakistan etc. –  while selectively highlighting some small non-issue that happened in India.

The terror group Al Qaeda went to the extent of calling for terror attacks in India– something if happens on ground, will not see anybody’s religion before killing them.

It must be mentioned here that banning this channel Al Jazeera was one of the conditions put forward by the Saudi Arab led coalition, in front of Qatar, to give them relaxations from the imposed sanctions and economic blockade, as this channel indulges in selective and biased reporting of issues, that clearly are in sync with official positions of the government of Qatar and its deep state, on the very same issues.

It must be mentioned here that the Shahin Bagh riots and anti-CAA protests in New Delhi were also publicized world over initially by this same news agency.

“Al Jazeera is a well oiled propaganda machine in the world, probably only second to Joseph Goebells , the Nazi propaganda minister of Adolf Hitler…..” says Major Gaurav Arya (retd.) as it has an evil and clinical efficiency of doing propaganda. The officer emphasized that this news agency, therefore is detrimental to India’s national security.

On the domestic front, Indian news media has been equally active in showcasing this particular event continuously feeding there 24 hour news cycles, as some major national level calamity. 

Suggested Solutions

The Indian External Affairs Ministry responded back very well to all of this propaganda giving appropriate responses at the proper levels. But that’s for the foreign policy and Indian diplomats to take care of.

The rioters and protestors have been dealt with sternly by the police forces, mostly in counter response. Economic and infrastructural damage can be repaired within months; it’s the social fabric and psyche that gets hurt the most and some aspects of damage there might be irreparable.

India needs to take strong action domestically as well as externally to ensure that such events, if occur in the future can be nipped in the bud. Anti-India platforms like Al Jazeera can be banned from broadcasting in India, in any format, a symbolic step that will send the right message across.

Countering all this is going to require an equally strong state sponsored information warfare campaign from the side of India. We have the funds, knowledge, reach and technical expertise to do so – the only missing factor being political will here. Countering after an attack is made on you is just not enough in today’s era, you have to one step ahead of the adversary to push stories that are favourable to your national interests.

A retired Army officer mentioned to the me, in a recent interview that a dedicated wing, with coordination of multiple civil agencies needs to be setup  for this purpose, if required, the military forces can also be made a part of it! The I&B Ministry and the Indian Information Service officers are capable enough to carry out such tasks.

The other side of the coin- security and law and order aspect is something that needs to be taken care of internally, within the country security apparatus. Social media’s capacity to spread information rapidly needs to be tapped into by security and law enforcement agencies to wrest control back from perpetrators of crimes. Blanket ban on the use of a particular social media application is not the solution in this case, as regulation is better tool than domination.

Social media is also a gold  mine of ‘open source intelligence’, which if effectively tapped into by state security agencies, can prevent a lot of damage from happening. This monitoring will have to be combined with tactical intelligence gathering like monitoring of CCTV traffic cameras, electronic surveillance etc. to prevent public mobilization. 

Once more than five motivated people gather at a place, the situation has already been lost to the adversary. A simple lathi wielding police officer cannot be expected to face an armed and violent crowd of hundreds of rioters. It needs a combination of smart policing combined with appropriate use of hard power. The curriculum and training modules of our police forces will have to be updated accordingly, focusing more on human resource development and pro-active usage of social media apps. The state security agencies must use all available formats of media for effective policing and pro-active citizen engagement. Global collaborations can also be sought by them, to engage with police forces across the world who have faced similar challenges before.

Modern problems require modern solutions after-all. It is necessary to get the right message across, to the right audience, at the right time and in the right way, through the right agency. It is the means, not the end. It is based on a multitude of small contributing factors coming together, as a result of collective consequence of which the impact will happen

But we need to start somewhere, at least now!

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