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MP-IDSA Fellows Seminar : Influence Operations: Winning Without Waging Wars in the 21st Century

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  • July 20, 2023
    Fellows' Seminar

    An MP-IDSA Fellows Seminar presentation by Dr. Adil Rasheed, Research Fellow, on “Influence Operations: Winning Without Waging Wars in the 21st Century” was held on 20 July 2023. It was chaired by Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Rakesh Sharma (Retd.), Member, Executive Council, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA). The External Discussants were Maj. Gen. Roopesh Mehta, ADG CD (B) IHQ, and Mr. Vinit Goenka, Secretary, Centre for Knowledge Sovereignty (CKS). Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Bipin Bakshi (Retd.), Deputy Director General, MP-IDSA; Lt. Gen. Akshat Upadhyay, Research Fellow, MP-IDSA; and Ms. Shruti Pandalai, Associate Fellow, MP-IDSA were Internal Discussants.

    Executive Summary

    Influence Operations (IO), a battle of narratives, is considered a new and rapidly-evolving field of study. Russia, China, the US, and Pakistan have been at the forefront of using their strategy. It pertains to clandestine operations that can manipulate and influence individuals’ and governments’ perceptions, decisions, and cognition of individuals and governments. IO includes active measures carried out by the erstwhile Soviet Union and is a non-kinetic form of warfare. It also gives each country relying on this strategy plausible deniability while conducting its activities. Social media, big tech, and artificial intelligence are crucial in this regard.

    Detailed Report

    In his opening remarks, the Chair, Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Rakesh Sharma (Retd.) stated that Information Warfare (IW) is the future warfare strategy. He further stated that besides India’s victory in 1971, no wars have genuinely been won in the 21st century.

    Dr. Adil Rasheed began by introducing the topic of his paper, Influence Operations (IO), a form of high-tech and hybrid warfare. One of the key definitions provided by the speaker was borrowed from Facebook, according to which IO refers to coordinated efforts to manipulate or corrupt public debate for a strategic goal. It was initially defined by RAND Corporation in 2009. IO could also be divided into three categories, i.e., political and economic, information, and psychological.

    Dr. Rasheed clarified that his study encompasses the assessment of IO carried out by Russia, China, the United States (US), and Pakistan. He added that wars are now fought in the virtual space and cognitive domain. These operations include offline and online measures to infiltrate political institutions and processes of other countries, making them incapable of going to war. He elaborated on IO benefits, such as being highly adaptive and effective, low-cost, and sustainable in peacetime. Today, it is associated with a foreign and maligned sharp power technique, including subversive public diplomacy, crowd manipulations, engineering colour revolutions and agitations, and election meddling. In addition, social media has amplified IO’s impact through trolling, flaming, doxing, posting dark advertisements, presenting Potemkin villages of evidence, and participating in cognitive hacking.

    He said that countries like China have relied on their diaspora based in foreign countries, such as the US, to act as spies and carry out industrial espionage. As per the Mueller Report, Russia was involved in elected meddling in the US in 2016, resulting in President Trump’s victory. 

    At the same time, the US, despite referring to IO as a threat to democracy, has intervened in approximately 81 foreign elections, often accused by Russia and China of instigating colour revolutions and the Arab Spring. The speaker delved into ISI and ISPR’s (PR wing of ISI) role in spearheading and sustaining Pakistan’s IO, articulating that ISI engages in Soviet-styled active measures. Simultaneously, the role of diaspora and radicalisation through madrassas based in Jammu and Kashmir, Bangladesh, and Nepal have been essential to Pakistan’s IO strategy.

    The speaker suggested that therefore, some key counter-measures India can adopt to address such threats include censorship of programmes aired on online streaming platforms, formulating a coherent and regulated social media policy and guidelines for protests and agitations, and reforming madrassas. 

    Dr. Rasheed stated that digital and online tactics and techniques are associated with IO strategy, and some of the counter-measures involve capacity building, implementing effective and regulatory legal frameworks, and deterrence.

    Maj. Gen. Roopesh Mehta spoke about the need to simplify IO as a term to counter these operations effectively. He also explained that Information Warfare (IW)/IO timeline is immaterial, regardless of whether it occurs in peacetime or war.

    IO is a long-term strategy involving a battle of narratives. IO has two fundamental aims: turning a rival power into a modern vassal state or weakening it sufficiently to ensure it is neutralised as a threat. There are multiple layers of intervention concerning IO, which is not amenable to positive control. He also underscored how high-quality and appealing content must be disseminated swiftly in the IO/IW space as an antidote to misinformation and disinformation.

    Furthermore, he presented his perspective on the Indian Army’s role in Kashmir and how ISI has been exploiting social media since 2014. Between 2015 and 2017, i.e., when Burhan Wani was active, there was immense synergy between the local media in the Kashmir Valley and developments in Pakistan. Therefore, India must draw lessons from this example. As far as China is concerned, its IO has proven more effective internally, while its impact externally remains debatable. Nevertheless, Indian leaders cannot rely on examples of authoritarian states such as Pakistan and China to establish IO-related institutions in the country. The US, however, has struggled to be effective in this domain and is a soft target since it has mainly relied on brute force to implement its agendas.

    He talked about some key issues to be considered while discussing IO/OW. Firstly, ISIS successfully exploited social media to convince people worldwide to join its caliphate since 2014. Secondly, social media is an unfair terrain. Thirdly, India’s geography and diversity make the establishment of centralised control a challenging task. Fourthly, developments in IO are multiplying faster than legislative actions can be introduced to address them. Fifthly, information space is a reality. He said that therefore, these trends require a robust Indian response, an improved fact check and tech ban eco-system, collaboration with agencies such as Tech Against Terror, and sensitising the citizens towards challenges such as fake news and propaganda.

    Mr. Vinit Goenka explained how colonisation by might in the erstwhile times has transformed into colonisation by big data today. Additionally, IO, a non-kinetic form of warfare, is not a time-bound strategy. He further presented three cases about IO potency. As per one of them, India’s western neighbour had used the local Marathi dialect online to stir up agitation against the development of a metro station near the Aarey colony in Mumbai. One of the other examples was a BBC documentary (1998) aired over 83 times in one year about AIDS-afflicted Indian truck drivers as a form of psychological warfare.

    He recommended that the speaker examine the role of lone wolves who seek to gain notoriety through IO and are not beholden to an ideology or a country.

    Maj. Gen (Dr.) Bipin Bakshi (Retd.) expounded on the multiple terminologies being used in this context, which he felt, need to be simplified, to make the paper more comprehensible. He went on to trace the terminology’s evolution over the past decades.

    In the World War era, he explained that the only terms in use were psychological warfare and deception. With the advent of electronic and digital media, he mentioned the evolving terminologies of perception management, cyber warfare, information operations, and strategic communication. He further delved into the linkages between Arthashastra and IW and how the latter has always been a part of Chinese military strategy in Sun Tzu's writings, therefore the concepts are actually age-old. Moreover, he explained that information operations had been broadly segregated by the US military into two components, i.e., information technical operations and information and influence operations, an error according to him, given the Russian and Chinese integrated approach in this domain.

    The discussant also spoke about how, in recent times, unverified bulk transmissions have been occurring with no editorial oversight, while assessing the differing components of perception management (PM) and the correlation between IW and PM. Additionally, the US Military Cyber Command Team’s role in training Ukrainians since 2014 against Russian IO, the inauguration of Singapore’s fourth military branch – Digital and Intelligence Service –, Chinese and Russian IO, the need to secure information space, India’s 2010 IW doctrine, and the November 2020 regulation about monitoring online streaming platforms was also discussed. In addition, he underlined the need for states to flood the information space with timely, credible data to avoid conjecture by uncontrolled media in an information vacuum. 

    Regarding the disclaimer in the the paper wherein Non- State actors and terrorist organisations were not being covered, he suggested a greater focus on state response to this challenge, with particular reference to India. He outlined the various organisations working in this space in India and recommended the establishment of an HR vertical in IO/ IW domain.  He also underlined the need to synergise organisations working separately in Cyber, Cognitive and Physical dimensions, with a nominated lead agency to better coordinate the state response in the Information domain. He further recommended that we must generate an All of Nation response to this challenge, and integrate at two levels; Firstly the physical, cyber, and technical dimensions, and Secondly, Government, Military, Industry, Academia, and Civil Society.

    Finally he suggested that the speaker may review if IO is actually a new constituent of hybrid warfare, and whether the cognitive domain is the sixth domain of warfare, as mentioned in the paper, or actually a part of the fifth domain- Information Domain, the first four being land, sea, air and space.

    Lt. Col. Akshat Upadhyay stated that the speaker must introduce more clarity into his paper, modify its title and scope, and provide contextualisation for various terminologies mentioned. He also emphasised the need to expand the IO ambit as part of his research and expound on relevant statistical and anecdotal examples. There is also a need to examine the relationship between IO and truth, list sharp techniques associated with IO, and provide a more nuanced understanding of cognitive warfare.

    At the same time, the speaker must account for how IO is not inherently malicious or positive and is merely a tool that state and non-state actors can use. It is also a battle of narratives. The discussant presented examples from the Gulf of Tonkin incident (Vietnam War) and humane treatment meted out by Indian officers to dead Pakistani soldiers during the Kargil War to support his argument. Lt. Col. Upadhyay delved into how the paper presented must re-orient from a West-centric approach and assess how Western countries have carried out IO elsewhere. Moreover, concrete examples are required to support assertions regarding US’ involvement in IO abroad.

    He also suggested that Dr. Rasheed analyse how the Soviet Union (now Russia) earlier used active measures to weaken NATO and establish continuity between its cold war strategies and contemporary tactics in Ukraine. Furthermore, India must institutionalise IO instead of relying on reactive counter-measures since the recommendations suggested in the paper will increase countries’ vulnerabilities instead of reducing them.

    Ms. Shruti Pandalai lauded that Dr. Rasheed has attempted to simplify a complex and evolving field, and it is improbable that one can distinguish between IW and IO. She said that there are divergences, convergences, and collaboration between Russian and Chinese IO, as visible in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Ukraine. An assertive China has increasingly adopted Russian tactics, which have ranged from controlling the diaspora and external and internal narratives in China’s favour.

    According to her, the events in Ukraine demonstrate big tech and the West’s role in controlling and strengthening the narrative in Ukraine’s favour. She also pointed out that US’s Global Engagement Council, run by the US State Department, a grouping focused on combating disinformation, is inward-looking in its outlook.  

    She pointed out that Dr. Rasheed needs to examine contemporary debates about IO, including artificial intelligence and big data, while being more cognisant of Western IO. At the same time, she emphasised that censorship of online streaming platforms, as suggested by the speaker, will be an ineffective deterrent in India. Finally, she believes it is necessary to focus on lessons learned.

    Lt. Gen. Rakesh Sharma (Retd.) suggested modifications to the paper’s title to adequately capture the core arguments and for Dr. Rasheed to account for how states use non-state actors in the IO/IW domain and refrain from using disclaimers. At the same time, he urged caution in using terms such as hybrid warfare while he elaborated on Chinese IO in the US, the United Nations Human Rights Council and India, and Russia’s IO in the United Kingdom during the Brexit vote and differing interpretations about war. Furthermore, he emphasised the need to establish a national cognitive agency in India.

    He also recommended that the speaker provide clarification about actors in India empowered to conduct cognitive warfare, India’s endgame regarding IO against China, and simplify terminologies used in the paper.

    Q/A Session

    Director General, Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy affirmed the need to examine all narratives concerning IO, including the insidious attempts by the West or current adversaries like Pakistan and China to prepare for the future adequately. He suggested that the paper look deeper into the role of IO/IW within India and the transboundary civil society actors’ involvement in these domains since their potency rivals big tech. At the same time, there is a requirement to assess if proposed Indian narratives are based on consensus and where challenges lie. Finally, an agnostic approach to values in IO/IW domain must be practiced.

    Some of the other themes discussed in the Q/A session included strategic relevance behind IO/IW in fields of health and disease, for example, the anti-vaccine campaign in the West, the scope of visibility of Indian IO, the need to analyse vulnerabilities in each segment of the population for antidotes to be forged, lack of domestic consensus on responding to IO threats against India, the synergy between state and non-state actors, and quantification of influence.

    Dr. Rasheed responded to the comments and questions raised.

    This report was prepared by Ms. Saman Ayesha Kidwai, Research Analyst, Counter-Terrorism Centre, MP-IDSA.