Within Pakistan, the discourse on India’s Fifth Generation Warfare (5GW) employing hybrid, i.e. strategic as well as non-strategic tactics against Pakistan has echoed for some time but with limited traction. More specifically, the military wing has repeatedly mentioned India’s disinformation campaign as a tacit non-strategic tool against Pakistan aimed at damaging Pakistan’s image internationally and forging discord domestically. However, evidence-based research on information weaponization by India against Pakistan has vehemently come to fore only recently. A Brussels-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) published an investigative report on an India-based online network aimed at damaging Pakistan’s image on international forums. Information weaponization within Indian society is rampant. Likewise, India’s hybrid warfare against Pakistan, specifically in terms of sponsoring terrorism and “proxyism” is also documented. However, an organised disinformation campaign against an external state was a lesser-known facet. In this regard, this piece dives into the phenomenon of “information weaponization,” and seeks to discover the impulses behind India’s information weaponization against Pakistan.
The operations are intended to shape or alter the opinions of the target audience, as per the intended desire of the perpetrator.
On December 9, the European Union (EU) Disinfo Lab – an independent European NGO, published a detailed report called “Indian Chronicles: Deep Dive into a 15-Year Operation Targeting the EU and UN to Serve Indian Interests”. The report exposed a shockingly vast information weaponization network based in India, targeting policymakers of the EU and the United Nations (UN). In operation since 2005, the network is responsible for coordinating and disseminating pro-India and anti-Pakistan information/news stories over a network of hundreds of fake websites, resurrected organisations and individuals, operating across around 68 countries. Disinformation researchers at the EU Disinfo Lab have claimed the network to be shockingly wide. The network has its operational activity with multiple layers of duplicity and impersonations. While the report uncovers a vast disinformation network, there remains an increasing probability of several other such networks being in place, yet unnoticed, actively dismantling Pakistan’s national interests, domestically and internationally.
Information weaponization, also called influence operations entail the conscious and strategic manufacture of information and its dissemination to specific target audiences. The operations are intended to shape or alter the opinions of the target audience, as per the intended desire of the perpetrator. Information weaponization operates across the digital domain (i.e. online information space), and cognitive domain of the target. When the weaponized information reaches its target, it executes an “active learning process” resulting in “deep and complex learning” of the target. This is executed by the construction of information employing behavioural sciences and psychological probing. The legal constraints and implications of information weaponization in terms of legislation and regulation largely remain neglected, at both national and international levels.
Dissemination of weaponized information is a relatively newer phenomenon. Weaponized information – as a tool of information operations targeting the state’s national interests emerged vehemently following the 2016 US presidential elections. An advertisement company, the Cambridge Analytica was found using data tools for shaping public opinion for the elections. Information weaponization once again caught buzz after the researchers in Britain claimed Russia of influencing the Brexit referendum. Similarly, China was also claimed to employ disinformation campaigns to portray the Hong Kong protests as a proxy of western states. In the case of India, disinformation campaigns employed by the domestic political parties have become widely rampant in the past few years.
At a time when policymakers in Pakistan seek to reset the country’s narrative internationally as an economically-driven peaceful state, such information weaponization campaigns starkly undermine Pakistan’s objectives; domestically as well as internationally.
While India-based disinformation networks have been found to target audiences externally, the issue of disinformation/fake news haunts the very basic social fabric of India itself too. India’s incumbent government has also come under fire by major opposition parties for maintaining complete control over India’s social media. Information wars have become a common sight in the country. Wide-spread fake news and divisive propaganda are circulated among masses via social networking platforms, most prominently Facebook and WhatsApp. In the recent past, Indian social media platforms became the hotbed of disinformation regarding the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act-2019 and resultant Delhi riots. In August 2020, a report by the Wall Street Journal unravelled the role of Facebook – India’s top public policy executive in fuelling the Delhi riots. India once again became the hotbed of fake news against religious minorities amid the Covid-19 outbreak.
India’s information weaponization against Pakistan comes in parallel with its offensive/defensive strategy. More commonly known as the Doval doctrine, this strategy seeks to covertly exploit Pakistan’s domestic economic, political, and security vulnerabilities, and to sabotage Pakistan’s image internationally. The doctrine is named after India’s current National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval – famously known for his spy activities in Pakistan. As a part of this doctrine’s implementation, the Indian government has doctored proxy separatist groups like the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) and the Sindhudesh Liberation Army (SLA) in Balochistan. Similarly, the spy operations of Kalbhushan Yadav were also a demonstration of the Doval doctrine at play. Pakistan has recently also publicly shared the findings of an elaborate intelligence-based dossier containing Indian actions of sponsoring terrorism in Pakistan. More importantly, the use of information technology forms the dominant contour of this doctrine. In NSA Doval’s words; “Make the paradigm shift; go for high technology, and in response, prepare for intelligence driven operations [sic]”. Hence, with the decreasing probability of conventional warfare, India has taken up covert information operations against Pakistan. While the recently-exposed weaponization operation had already begun 15 years ago, the volume and magnitude of such operations kick-starting with the onset of the Modi-Doval duo remain to be investigated and discovered.
More commonly known as the Doval doctrine, this strategy seeks to covertly exploit Pakistan’s domestic economic, political, and security vulnerabilities, and to sabotage Pakistan’s image internationally.
A number of top Pakistani military officials have iterated the challenge of India’s disinformation campaigns, spreading fake news via social media websites as a challenge for Pakistan. However, evidence-based proofs of India’s information weaponization have not been documented much so far. Earlier, in December 2019, the EU Disinfo Lab had published another report exposing this network at a preliminary level. However, instead of Pakistan actively taking up and pursuing the issue proactively, the information considerably fell on deaf ears with a negligible response from Pakistan. Nevertheless, the 2019 investigative report served as a prelude to the recently published report.
In terms of its effectiveness, the disinformation network has caused considerable damage to Pakistan already. The impact of India’s disinformation campaign against Pakistan has gone far enough to breed inter-institutional discord within, generate dissension over Pakistan’s bilateral ties with China and even Saudi Arabia, and undermine Pakistan’s soft power internationally. Most importantly and ironically, the network has raised disputation over the ubiquity of the 5GW itself. It would not be an exaggeration to assert that Pakistan’s foreign engagements with the outside world must have taken a considerable toll due to India’s disinformation campaign against Pakistan. At a time when policymakers in Pakistan seek to reset the country’s narrative internationally as an economically-driven peaceful state, such information weaponization campaigns starkly undermine Pakistan’s objectives; domestically as well as internationally.
For Pakistan, the threat of 5GW is real. The damage that has been inflicted on Pakistan by India with the use of disinformation and information weaponization mechanisms has been detrimental. It is high time that a nation-wide consensus over the relevance of India’s anti-Pakistan non-strategic tools is developed. As a consequence of India’s information operations, the relevance of devising mechanisms for gauging the impact of such campaigns over the long haul has emerged. State-level legislative and regulatory mechanisms for countering the threat is another emerging need of the time. As a first, the government of Pakistan must take up an active diplomatic offensive against India’s information operations on international forums. However, central to this challenge shall remain Pakistan’s unhindered and optimal allocation of fact-finding, financial, and diplomatic resources and efforts to devise counter-narratives that can shield Pakistan against such attacks.