Most militaries of the world consider surprise as one of the essential principles of war. Influenced by the dictum that all is fair in love and war, sages like Kautilya, Sun Tzu and Machiavelli have recommended the use of stealth and chicanery in warfare and statesmanship. Military commanders are trained in staff and war colleges to do the unexpected and appear at the time and place least expected to dominate the battle space. The non-state actor has more flexibility in this regard because he follows no rules.
Surprise in war can be achieved through subterfuge, ruses and deception. A number of means including propaganda is used to spread false news to condition the minds of the enemy. This includes covert means like rumor mongering and whispering campaigns by fifth columnists and agents. More traditional means include psychological operation themes (as part of the broader information warfare) perpetuated through print and electronic media. The advent of social media has become a force multiplier in waging a malicious propaganda campaign.
The purpose of spreading false news is to lower the morale of the troops and the nation. If a nation is convinced that it cannot win a war it will sue for peace even before the war has started. A credible propaganda can weaken nation’s moral fiber and erode its resolve to resist a foreign invasion.
This paper posits that it is important to counter false news is by preparing the nation in peacetime and by creating a counter narrative. This strategy, however, will only succeed if the basic human needs of the common man are fulfilled and he/she has full faith in the leaders’ abilities to rise to the occasion and their destiny as a sovereign nation.
Keywords: fake news, rumor, psychological operations (psy ops), national morale, counter narrative
Whereas, professional armies train with the aim of winning wars, victories are only possible if the entire nation supports the war effort. Nations having little faith in their top leadership both civil and military are not likely to become part of what they may deem as a lost cause. The national will in fact is the center of gravity of any campaign (military as well as non-military). If it is damaged before or during the war, the war effort will crumble.
The collapse of the national will can be triggered, if doubts are sown in the mind of the common man. A defeatist narrative can sap the spirit of the people and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Spreading a damaging narrative can be done through multiple means. The more traditional way is by the clever use of the regular print or electronic media. It can be done more deviously through the rumor mill or the social media. This new phenomenon of the social media has to be taken seriously because it can spread news instantly with the mere click of the button and false or fake news spread through this medium not only reaches far and wide, it is also taken very seriously by the recipients. To counter such disinformation a very strong and effective counter narrative needs to be built. A plot that is believable can stem the ill effects of a malicious and damaging propaganda campaign. Clearly, it requires a lot of planning and research. A hastily mounted counter offensive will not gain traction with a wary public.
The aim of this paper is to discuss the ill effects of fake or false news on a nation’s morale and effective ways and means to check it through an equally strong and innovative counter narrative.
One of the cardinal principles of warfare calls for surprising the enemy. The element of surprise is most essential at levels of planning i.e. strategic, operational as well as tactical. Military leaders at all tiers of command are taught the art of surprise in their staff and war colleges. However, it takes more imagination than text books and class room lectures to practice and perfect this difficult skill of employing a successful stratagem.
Surprise is often achieved by moving and positioning forces in a manner that the enemy is deceived. Catch the enemy at his weakest moment is possible by springing a perfectly timed surprise. In 218 BC during the Second Punic War, Hannibal moved his war elephants across the snow covered Alps bypassing the Roman land garrison and navy to achieve perfect surprise. In May 636 AD, the celebrated Muslim commander Khalid bin Al Waleed rapidly moved and deployed his mobile columns to defeat the lumbering Roman Army in the decisive battle of Yarmouk in modern day Syria.
The Americans were caught off guard in Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 and perhaps again on September 11, 2001. For the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese had an elaborate ploy to deceive the Americans. They generated a lot of misleading chatter and news to disguise the actual intentions and fool the Americans. The intelligence estimates that the US analysts made were based on the intercepts from Japanese diplomatic correspondence at that time. The Japanese were able to feed to the US intelligence monitoring their signal traffic that they were preparing for a main military offensive not against Hawaii but down South against British Malaya, and US possession of Philippines and the Dutch East Indies. This wasn’t far wrong but the Japanese main effort was poised against their naval base in Hawaii in north Pacific. The Japanese were able to hide the movement of their naval fleet comprising six aircraft carriers, two battleships and three cruisers travelled across 3,700 perilous miles before they broke cover. The Japanese naval forces were able to damage beyond repair two elderly ships the Arizona and Oklahoma, and kill 2,026 American sailors and marines (1,206 were on board these ships). The US forces had sent away a large number of their aircraft to defend their colony in Philippines, and there was minimum air defense available in Hawaii to counter the Japanese attack. Three battleships (California, West Virginia and Nevada) were sunk in the shallow waters of the harbor and three more (Pennsylvania, Maryland and Tennessee) suffered minor damages. 26 Japanese submarines prowled the harbor to destroy survivors. The element of surprise was complete and the Americans had suffered their first defeat in the opening round of the Second World War. This day was forever remain etched in their national psyche as the “day that will live in infamy.” The Americans would exact revenge for their humiliation by dropping nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki towards the closing days of the Second World War. In all probability out of hubris rather than any military gains.
In the October 1973 Arab Israel War, the Egyptians were able to achieve surprise because they caught the Israelis off guard. The Egyptian military assault across the Suez Canal smashing the Bar Lev Line defense works was based on elaborate strategic surprise. The Egyptian Army would come close to the Suez Canal each year in mock maneuvers, lulling the Israelis into complacency when it came to the real war. Just before the war they expelled their Soviet experts and trainers and advisors and sent troops home on leave as per peacetime norm. This news was widely publicized and the Israelis swallowed the bait. Any dissent or advice to the contrary was summarily rejected. The guards were down on 26 October, which the orthodox Jews that year were commemorating as Yom Kippur or the day of penance and fasting. For the Muslims it was the holy month of Ramadan during which they also fast and pray and refrain from mundane worldly chores. A war breaking out that day was least expected. The assault was swift and caused so much damage to the Israeli reputation of invincibility that it brought the otherwise iron willed Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir to the verge of tears. Her defense minister, the otherwise fearsome Moshe Dayan with his iconic eye patch pleaded with the Americans to help retrieve the situation. For a dangerous moment, the Israelis toyed with the idea of going for the Samson’s option of using the nuclear weapon if the Americans did not come to their aid. The prompt American military aid and satellite information of the Egyptian dispositions across the bar Lev Line did eventually help the Israelis to retrieve the situation and end the war more or less evenly poised.
In the examples quoted above it was more often than not the case of deception at a grand scale to dupe the leadership of the opponent into believing what may or may not happen? Now the target audience has shifted to the nation at large. Famous French strategist Andre Beufre described strategy as the dialectic of opposing wills. Now this will is not that of the commander anymore but that of the entire nation. So the defeat of a country means breaking its national will.
As the strategic landscape of perception has changed, so have termed used in the domain of psychological operations (psy ops) and information warfare (IW). Fake news is a new term that was given wide currency during Mr. Trump’s during his election campaign (2016). He used it so often that it became known as one of his favorite oral and twitter expressions. So much so that it was declared the word of the year for 2017. To put things in the correct perspective, Axel Gelfert has defined fake news as “the deliberate presentation of (typically) false or misleading claims as news, where the claims are misleading by design.”
Fake news follows the famous dictum that all’s fair in love in war. Wise sages such as Kautilya, Sun Tzu and Machiavelli have recommended the use of stealth and chicanery in warfare and statesmanship. Chanakya (also identified as Kautiliya or Vishnugupta), the fourth century BC advisor in his political treatise Arthashastra advised Chandragupta, the first Mauryan emperor and his cohorts to employ all tricks of the trade to gather information and browbeat the enemy through insidious means. In the Chinese ancient military treatise The Art of War Confucian thinker and strategist Sun Tzu (roughly fifth century BC) states:
All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.
In his sixteenth century political treatise The Prince, Italian diplomat and political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli openly advocated the use of deception to fulfill a political (or military?) agenda. Nothing was considered wrong or morally unethical in such kind of advice and it was often accepted by those wanting to deliver a death blow to a more powerful political (or military?) enemy.
In the past stratagems and ruses have been spun out using the medium of propaganda and rumor to effectively cause consternation in the enemy’s camp. Fake news is just a new name to disinformation being planted in the minds of the enemy leadership and it’s public to cause dismay and hopelessness. Fake news is not entirely untrue and is rarely created from thin air. It is an exaggeration of the existing situation but it does in such a way that it can increases a sense of fear, foreboding and impending loss or gloom and/or perceived relative deprivation among the target audience.
George H.W. Bush, the US President at the time of the 11th of September 2011 attacks (now popularly known as 9/11) used fear as an overriding emotion to shape public opinion at home and the world at large. A nation fed on overwhelming fear was led to believe that terrorists were lurking everywhere and they could pounce upon unsuspecting common man not bearing arms at his or her workplace, in the shopping malls, in the places of entertainment, at the places of worship and even in their homes. Fear was used to build national resolve to defeat what was explained as terrorism. A number of resolutions were passed in the UN Security Council This allowed him to launch a Global War on Terror that has still not run out of steam. Each bomb blast and attack on a public place was reacted to with unmatched fury. The infamous prison at Guantanamo Bay was filled up with stateless warriors with no rights as promised to a prisoner of war under Geneva Conventions. Although random incidents are still labeled as acts of terrorism but the appeal or horror of such happenings have begun to recede and non-state actors are no more the demons that they were a decade ago.
As mentioned earlier Donald Trump made the use of fake news a part of everyday vocabulary. He would reject every allegation of his political opponents as fake news. He continued the use of the term fake news in international relations once he was sworn into office as the President of the US. During his election campaign Trump’s camp was able to gauge the public opinion through the data harvested by Cambridge Analytica by harvesting personal preferences of the voters gleaned from social media platforms such as Google, Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook. Intensive survey research, data modelling and performance optimizing algorithms were used to target 10,000 ads to different audiences in the months leading upto the elections. These ads were viewed billions of times to make credible opinions. Trump used the slogan of America first and appealed to white supremacists to vote for him after the two term presidency of Barak Obama – the first black president of USA. Trump an unlikely candidate was able to correctly gauge the mood of the electorate and won the elections despite poor personal reputation.
Spreading Fake News
Fake news finds traction with target audience when it resonates with their emotions and passions. To strike the right chords, the message must be plausible. It is always best to build up on an existing grievance.
East Pakistan broke away from the West after 27 years of joint existence due to a growing feeling of perceived relative deprivation (PRD) because of the unfair treatment being meted out to them by the West Pakistanis. Most of their complaints were legitimate. Bangla, their mother tongue was only reluctantly given the status of a national language after the riots of 1952 resulting in the death of student demonstrators. They wanted more representation in decision making positions. They were upset because despite being larger in numbers, the West Pakistanis were occupying all positions of authority in the civil and military bureaucracy. Even their enrolment at the entry level in the armed forces fell short of the recruitment target. The East Pakistani elite perpetuated the myth that all the foreign exchange earnings through the sale of jute were being spent for building a new capital city in West Pakistan. In 1955, in a keynote address, Gen Ayub Khan, who had served as the commanding general of 14 Division in East Pakistan in 1948, in his dual position as the commander in chief (C in C) of Pakistan Army and defense minister of his country had explicitly stated that “The defense of the East Pakistan did not lay in that part of the country.” After the 1965 India Pakistan War, it became quite clear to the East Pakistanis that Pakistan Army planned only to fight and defend their core areas in West Pakistan and leave them at the mercy of the aggressor. So in 1966 Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman came up with his famous six points demanding greater autonomy. He wanted that the federal government only be responsible for defense and foreign affairs and all residual matters be devolved to the federating units. He also demanded the right to maintain provincial militias and wanted the Naval HQ to be moved to East Pakistan. The West Pakistanis believed that the Bengali was not martial material and the East Pakistanis thought that the Punjabi was the usurper living off the wealth generated by Sonar Bangla (golden Bengal). As general mistrust between the East and the West grew, Indians decided to capitalize on opportunity developing and they pounced on it. Hatred against West Pakistan was fanned through incendiary propaganda. The hatred grew to phenomenal levels leading to a civil war in 1971. This was openly supported by the Indians. The secession of East Pakistan from the West was completed after the Indian forces moved in an extracted the surrender document from the beleaguered Pakistani military contingent on December 16, 1971.
Taking a leaf from the Bangladesh example, enemies of the country have from time to time tried to rouse ethnic passions. They have found a sympathetic audience among the Muhajirs residing in the metropolitan city of Karachi, among the Sindhis living in the hinterland, among the Baloch and Pushtun nationalists. This has resulted in the creation of entities such as the Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM), Jeay Sindh Quami Movement (JSQM), Baluch Liberation Army (BLA) and the Baloch Republican Army (BRA), Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Pashtun Tahafuzz Movement (PTM). Each of these movements has claimed to be the legitimate mouthpiece of their ethnic interests. Some of these actively preached and practiced violence for the fulfillment of their demands and some openly spoke of secession.
Incendiary literature produced by separatists has been recovered by law enforcement agencies from time to time. Magazines, brochures and booklets to fire the passions of the cadres and to raise funds has been sold openly and supplied covertly to the zealots. With the rapid advancement in technology, Internet has been actively used to spread the words of hate. Smart phones are routinely used to spread the messages through Whatsapp. The government blamed hostile countries and their intelligence agencies for sponsoring these outfits. As per the National Action Plan (NAP) made in consensus with all parties in the aftermath of the 16 December 2014 attack against the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar to root out terrorism. One of the 20 points states that hate speech being spouted by militant organizations be completely stopped.
Some of these organizations like the MQM have fractured and dissipated or have lost appeal among their followers but others like JSQM are still alive and kicking. From time to time religious organizations like the Jamat ud Dawa (JuD) and Falah-i-Insanayat Foundation (FIF) have been proscribed as far back as January 2002 but many have reinvented themselves and reappeared with new names and symbols. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) is hard put to close down their social media accounts by writing to those companies providing them these services.
In 2016, Kulbhushan Jadhav, a commander of the Indian Navy serving in the ranks of their intelligence agency Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) was caught in the restive province of Balochistan. Jadhav had disguised himself as a businessman with a Muslim name and was operating out of the Iranian port city of Chahbahar. It was alleged that Jadhav was actively fomenting terrorism and was actually involved in sabotaging the projects of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). He was talking to Baloch separatists and directly motivating them to bear arms and indulge in anti-state activity. Jadhav was arrested and court martialed. India has taken up the issue with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to get their spy released. Irrespective of this international litigation, it is a fact that for years Jadhav was able to cross the border without much difficulty and sow the seeds of hate among the unsuspecting youth of Balochistan.
Narrative and Counter Narrative
One way to counter fake news and false propaganda is by building up a counter narrative. Like fake news a counter narrative must be plausible. A concocted and farfetched story is unlikely to resonate with a wary audience. One example is the botched ‘counter terrorism’ strike by Indian Mirage 2000 planes against a seminary building allegedly used for training ‘militants’ in the village of Jabba in Balakaot district Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province employed in the raid against the Indian Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in Pulwama in occupied Kashmir on 14 February 2019. The Indian planes released their payloads in a hurry and went back doing no harm but damaging a few trees. A day later a Pakistani Combat Air Patrol (CAP) was able to lure in two Indian aircraft into their own airspace and shoot down a Mig 21 Bison and an SU30. An Indian pilot was captured and later released. The Indian media went ballistic and called for revenge. To drum up war hysteria, they produced fake news at an industrial scale. Since the news was entirely fictional, they were neither able to convince the domestic audience nor the world at large that their aerial counter attack had actually not met its target and in fact had gone terribly awry. The stuff of Bollywood films could not be replicated and the public was left wondering why the Indian Air Force despite all its expensive hardware had not been able to deliver. It was clear to everyone that instead of responsible journalism, the Indian media had been parroting BJP’s party line. On the flip side, a media campaign short on facts and loud on fury failed to cause a war because a legitimate casus belli was lacking.
So a counter narrative must be built on plausibility and credibility. It should be backed up by incontrovertible proof. In the digital age, evidence can be cooked up and photoshopped but even this requires expertise. An amateur and clumsy production is always caught out. The whole story has to be built up on some essential facts. Fiction cannot be created entirely out of thin air. Hostile propaganda and psy ops themes are to be prepared carefully and executed imaginatively. German propagandist Joseph Goebbels used all the resources of the Third Reich to build a narrative of the racial superiority of the German nation. He was also a staunch anti-Semite. To his credit Goebbels was an extremely well read man. He had done his PhD from the University of Heidelberg in 1921 and had written 14 books. As the propaganda minister he made intelligent and extensive use of radio, press and films. To control the German media, he exercised strict censorship and allowed only that material to be published and broadcast that was in the interest of the Nazi party. Goebbels painted the Nazi leadership in heroic colors. Germans were the master race and Hitler was the Führer (Great Leader). The Jews were bad and they had an evil stranglehold over the economy. The propaganda line appealed to the common German and it followed party pronouncement without question and participated party rallies enthusiastically.
Goebbels is not the only one to have made extensive use of propaganda to extol the virtues of the leadership. Dictators and absolute monarchs encourage their minions the use the state organs to propagate their qualities of their leadership styles. The public is exposed to so much propaganda, day in and day out that they started believing in it. Many of them have their books of public utterings published at state expense and made compulsory reading for school children and adults as a means of indoctrination. The late Muammar Al Gadhafi perpetuated his personal aura as an absolute ruler through his Green Book. This book was published internationally as well to give Libya watchers a glimpse of Gadhafi’s style of managing his state and its vast oil resources.
When the last leader of North Korea Kim Jong-il (the father of the current leader Kim Jong-un) died, the common man wept unabashedly. The people were totally beholden who had been the master of their common destiny. This was possible because the people believed in what they were told. To criticize the dynasty was blasphemy. The Mount Paektu Bloodline, signifying the three-generation lineage of North Korean leadership descending from the country’s first leader, Kim Il-sung is next to divinity in a godless system. Under such an arrangement, the state propaganda machinery is responsible for keeping the regime afloat. The people are not allowed to think that another system can improve their lives. They pin their hopes entirely on the ruling dynasty and the state narrative is literally accepted as gospel truth.
A mystique is also created around the personality of military leaders by war propagandists. American generals are especially fond of publicity. Some of them like Patton and MacArthur had a flair for self-projection. Patton would wear his steel helmet with his general’s star prominently displayed and carried fancy pistols with ivory hand grip. He created an image of a hard driving general hell bent on advancing on to the enemy and not afraid of speaking his mind. MacArthur wore his peaked cap at a jaunty angle, mostly wore crumpled khakis and made a display of smoking a corncob pipe. He was so fond of being photographed that he reenacted his landing on the island of Corregidor to publicize the fulfillment of his famous “ I shall return” promise. This hunger for publicity and self-created glamor have been evident in the recent wars in the Middle East. The propaganda eulogizing national pride and prowess has been packaged so slickly that the gullible public wholeheartedly supported unwinnable wars.
In the modern age of crass commercialism, the Americans have mastered the art of marketing and publicity. They can sell any idea to the world thanks to Hollywood – the greatest propaganda machine in the human history. Although the Indian film industry produces the most number of picture annually, American production houses such as Disney production dominate at the box office. In fact the propaganda produced by Hollywood has no match. The pop culture and history spawned by Hollywood has global appeal and is accepted unquestioningly. Over a century of its existence it has spun it has spun out an international narrative and image that transcends the language barrier and physical boundaries that has replace history books and genuine research. The images created by Hollywood are forever etched in the minds of the young and impressionable. It creates demons and glorify characters that it wants to John Wayne will always ride tall, the super heroes will always save the world and villains often depicting Asians or Africans will always lose. One example that comes readily to mind is the Blackhawk Down incident in Somalia that took place in the early 1990s. It glorifies the grit and determination of the besieged American Marines and blots out the courageous effort of the Pakistani troops to rescue them.
The only entertainment industry that is nearly as powerful in conditioning and influencing minds as Hollywood, is India’s Bollywood. It creates an image of a ‘shining’ and ‘inclusive’ propped on a formulaic doze of song and dance and colorful cultural content. In this manner it crafts a patently false image of a country that is caste ridden, poverty stricken and intolerant of other people’s beliefs. It glosses over gory images of a crowd lynching a Muslim for allegedly slaughtering a cow and gangs of uncontrollable men raping a lonely woman. Instead it shows India as a secular and protective society that safeguards the interests of the minorities and vulnerable segments of the society. Also Bollywood consciously dishes out an image of Pakistan as the state sponsoring terrorism. Bollywood films are not only screened all across the globe but also in Pakistan adding to the already overwhelming doze of cultural onslaught to impact the minds of the impressionable youth. Unfortunately there is no counter to either Hollywood or Bollywood.
One place, which provides a relatively even playing field is the social media. Also it is quite possible to counter and rebut a wrong story on this medium. Plausible and acceptable stories spread through the social media can influence own people as well as others. A citizen journalist is always at hand to capture the moment with his smart phone and any video clip which has the potential of mass appeal can go viral at the click of the button. News spread on the social media has a very short life and a ‘feel good’ doesn’t last very long if not followed by tangible work to make the state of the people better. In fact winning the hearts and minds needs real effort. If the government is sincere and creates conditions for its people to progress and prosper, it won’t need a counter narrative. Action speaks better than words. Investing in the people and making policies in the best interest of the common man can inspire confidence in the state.
Countering fake news is important because it can quickly erode national morale and break the collective spirit to resist any challenge or calamity. A war can be lost in the mind if it is not countered in the strongest possible manner. Any nation that hopes to survive the rigors of adversity must train its masses to be able to bear the onslaught of hostile propaganda and onslaught of fake and fictitious news. The maintenance of national will is a cause that needs national attention. A national policy to monitor and counter negative propaganda must be made as a result of a realistic threat assessment. Necessary resources and manpower should be made available to combat negative news but more than that the government must invest in the people so they have full belief in the state and are able to sift the chaff from the grain and believe in the truth and not in malcontent deliberately sent their way.