How to win a battle: Disinformation offers a strategic advantage over foes, writes Harini Calamur

“Ashwatthama Hatha: Iti, Narova Kunjarova,” said Yudhishthira in the battle of Kurukshetra, to his guru, and the supreme commander of the Kauravas, Dronacharya. Ashwathama is dead, and then he whispers, that he is not sure if it is man or beast. Dronacharya loses heart and gives up on the battle, takes up the meditative pose and is beheaded by Dhristadhyumna. In the battle, for the Pandavas to have a fighting chance of victory, it was imperative to eliminate Dronacharya. A lie uttered by the most honest man in the world was the disinformation needed to achieve it. It was the strategy to win the war. And it worked. Chanakya talked about Gudayuddha, or the secret war – that used clandestine methods, including misinformation, to win wars.

Disinformation is not a modern phenomenon. It has been used for centuries, if not aeons, to gain strategic advantage over foes. However, since the last century, tools of mass media have been extremely effective in spreading propaganda and disinformation. The Nazis used it effectively to demonise Jews, Communists, Gays and others and pave the way to try and annihilate anyone who did not fit in with their ideals. The Soviets used it to spread Communism. The CIA had a robust policy of disinformation and misinformation, often underwriting entire publications; they had journalists on their payroll and justified it as part of the cultural war on Communism.

Using airwaves

In India, it is believed that the CIA was generous in spreading funds to the media to ensure that America won the war of perception. During the Cold War, the American-backed Voice of America and the Soviet-backed Radio Moscow spread disinformation using the airwaves. Each demonising the other side.

Pakistan, for the longest time, has had a very sophisticated disinformation machine, not only using sophisticated lobbying firms, and PR agencies, but sponsoring seminars, junkets and studies that show it in a favourable light. There has been tremendous disinformation about Jammu and Kashmir not just within the state, but in western capitals. And more recently, there has been an attempt to sow seeds of distrust between India and the Arab world through a sophisticated operation, with fake accounts.

China employs a combination of its monetary heft and propaganda to see its objectives fulfilled. In the aftermath of the Covid outbreak, it has been all the more active in trying to portray itself in a good light.

Each of these nations is following what they believe to be national interest. And they employ all tactics, including disinformation, to achieve strategic goals. The question is: How do we judge India, if it is alleged that we are doing the same?

Indian interests

Last week, the independent non-profit EU Disinfo Lab broke the story of a 15-year-old operation by an Indian-controlled company based out of the EU, putting out the Indian perspective on world issues, and at the same time, spreading disinformation about Pakistan and China. They said they had unearthed “a vast network of 265 coordinated fake local media outlets in 65 countries serving Indian interests, as well as multiple dubious think tanks and NGOs. This network was active in Brussels and Geneva in producing and amplifying content designed to, primarily, undermine Pakistan.”

The report claims that this network included fake news sites, compliant news agencies, and the ability to spread a certain agenda across geographies. Additionally, a Reuters report on disinformation, two years ago said, “A handful of sophisticated state actors use computational propaganda for foreign influence operations. Facebook and Twitter attributed foreign influence operations to seven countries (China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela) which have used these platforms to influence global audiences.”

The EU Disinofo Lab says that the aim of this operation is to raise the level of anti-Pakistan and anti-China feelings within India and more importantly, to “to consolidate the power and improve the perception of India, to damage the reputation of other countries and ultimately benefit from more support from international institutions such as the EU and the UN”. These are not goals you can fault.

That India has been defending her national interest for the last 15 years, via a campaign of propaganda and disinformation, should not be particularly shocking. What should be shocking is that we began doing this only 15 years ago, while others have been doing this for a lot longer. In the real world, where actions have consequences, not indulging in disinformation when everyone else in the game is doing so, would be a folly. And it is this lens of realpolitik that we need to view these allegations with.

The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audiences. She is a columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker.

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