Since the late 1990s, social media has become a ubiquitous phenomenon that seems to be increasingly adopted by Indians across all spectra – religion, age groups, genders, professions, and regions. Its applications are many and hence, its multiple platforms – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Blogs, Instagram, Pinterest, and so on – are designed for specific purposes.
The growth of the Internet and the decreasing cost of data usage across geographies, coupled by user friendly connecting devices such as the data card and WiFi contribute to the growth of social media. In urban and semi-urban regions of India, it has become reality that more number of news consumers are accessing information (news) from the Internet through the desktop, laptop and, increasingly, mobile devices, such as smartphones and tabs, than from traditional sources such as newspapers, television or radios. While they are engaging, due to the content, social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, are by nature more participative as people share news and comment on posts.
What makes these platforms interesting, addictive and, hence, increasingly ubiquitous is their ease of use. A smart device (such as a mobile phone with robust data connectivity) with the relevant social media app is all that is required to capture a moment and make it viral for posterity. It must be remembered that data once created cannot be destroyed, but will survive in one form or the other. Another characteristic of this phenomenon is its open nature – anybody can be a content creator – the citizen, the government, or the armed forces.
Thus, social media has revolutionized communication like no other platform ever before and no one truly controls it. In context of propaganda, social media offers a level playing field – and often, the one who enters first predominantly controls perception. Also, the more open the engagement with followers, the more the traction and superiority. It must be understood that this medium of communication almost truly reflects ground realities. Aided by visuals (stunning pictures and graphic videos) and easy authorship/sharing, this medium is a very powerful tool.
The Most Popular Social Media Platforms in India
India has over 136 million active social media users.(1) The country’s digital scenario is among the fastest in the world with maximum usage in cities and towns. It is said that one out of five Indians use the Internet.(2)
Among the various social media platforms accessed in the country, Facebook and YouTube top the list with 33% penetration of the total social media user base in India.(3) One of the key reasons for the dynamic increase in the use of social media is the exponential increase in the use of mobile telephony. With Internet data packages available for mobile phones (smart phones) accessing social media sites has increased. 70% of Internet page views originate from mobile devices. Over 87% of all Facebook users access the platform through their smart phones.(4)
With such high visibility and use of the social media, it is but natural that governments and the armed forces start paying attention on this platform.
Fostering ‘Social’ Activism and Militancy
Whether it is Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement in New Delhi or the Jallikattu protests in Chennai and across Tamil Nadu, all such collective efforts find an equal, if not larger, action on social media. Hashtags such as #ISupportJallikattu, #WedoJallikattu, #AmendPCA, #JusticeforJallikattu were becoming so popular that there weren’t just limited to Twitter and Facebook, but in print media – in papers that carried Jallikattu stories. A study done by the research group, Pew, in 2012 states that almost 45% Indian social media users discuss politics across the various channels.
In the broader context of this article, the on goings in Kashmir may present a more appropriate example. It is common knowledge that Social Media has been playing a conspicuous role in rallying local youth in violently engaging with security forces in the Valley. Social Media channels are flush with videos of militants’ training, indoctrination, alleged excesses by the Indian armed forces, and ‘social outreach’ by militants. Such posts influence the local youth and mobilize them to join stone throwing and other violent activities. The first death anniversary of Burhan Wani, the local Hizbul Mujahideen commander and probably the ‘most loved’ face of Kashmiri militancy, was projected across platforms as ‘Kashmir Awareness’ campaign.
Reuters’ Kashmir Bureau chief, Sheikh Mustaq states that the videos of militants now showing them posing in army fatigues has humanised them and made them icons that local youth aspire to be. What’s more, thanks to internet connectivity and rapidly spreading smartphones, such videos are found in almost every phone or laptop in the Valley.
Israel-Palestine’s real-time war updates on Social Media have also found their Kashmiri counterpart. In February this year, stone throwing episodes were shot and uploaded in almost real time. Videos that also reveal in graphic detail alleged human rights abuses by security forces have been dominating social media as well as traditional news media this year, the best example being Major Gogoi’s ‘human shield’ video.
Where is the Government Juggernaut?
When there is so much action on this space, where are the armed forces? How can the armed forces be silent? As elucidated above, every channel presents an opportunity to build an image, be it recruitment advertisements, events, humanitarian activities, welfare initiatives, exercises and even training videos. It takes more than mere government issued press releases to successfully communicate effectively. The Indian armed forces should become aware that social media should be considered as an important tool for multiple purposes – not just to entice youth, but even as a platform for warfare – building propaganda. Social media posts are very powerful. For example, they are a very important source for unstructured data, which when processed, help in gathering intelligent and ‘actionable’ information.
It is understood that the armed forces are beleaguered by protocol and regulations. Also, the nature of its work makes it averse to proactive communication. However, this cannot be the case anymore, especially in the social media front. Armed forces across the world are slowly becoming aware of this. Nitin Gokhale, in his article titled ‘Media-Military relations in the age of Twitter and Facebook’ in DNA, quotes an excerpt from The Guardian. “The British army is creating a special force of Facebook warriors, skilled in psychological operations and use of social media to engage in unconventional warfare in the information age. The 77th Brigade, to be based in Hermitage, near Newbury, in Berkshire, will be about 1,500-strong… the Brigade will be responsible for what is described as non-lethal warfare… against a background of 24-hour news, smartphones and social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, the force will attempt to control the narrative.” (6)
Private enterprises, both commercial and non-profit, have understood the effective use of social media as an extension of their efforts on the field. However, the picture in India is just beginning to evolve. Of late, various government departments, such as the Ministry of External Affairs, seem to be displaying an avid interest in communicating to the public through this medium. Probably spearheaded by the Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi himself, Tweeting and Facebook publications are increasingly being leveraged. The Ministries of Defence and External Affairs have created official Twitter handles – @SpokespersonMoD and @MEAIndia, respectively. The incumbent Minister of Defence, Smt. Nirmala Seetharaman has also created a new official Twitter handle for herself – @DefenceMinIndia.
It may be interesting to note that the nodal agency that controls military communication, the Additional Director General, Public Information (ADG PI), had entered this sphere a little early, on February 2013, through its Twitter handle @ADGPI. The Indian Army seems to be taking the lead in this direction.
However, this alone will not ensure superiority or even credibility till the actual functioning is supported by an ‘open’ mindset and on-the-ground protocol. Communication control has to be divested. Officers should be empowered to communicate more openly on operational issues. It is understandable that certain types of information, for obvious reasons, may not be publishable. But the most important of all factors, the brass at the headquarters should have an open and interactive mindset to engage with stake holders – the News Media and the Public at large on such a ‘free and unbridled’ platform or else, it may end up being perceived as another half hearted attempt to unsuccessfully adopt to new concepts.
The Case of the Missing ‘Malabar Exercises’
This year, Malabar Exercise (the 21st edition of the series) was conducted from 10th to 17th July. Just to state obvious, the exercises, which were bilateral till 2015 (India & US) now includes another strategic regional partner, Japan. The purpose of this series of exercises is obvious – to study operational paradigms of the participating navies and to get firsthand experience in interoperability, if and when a need arises. With growing Chinese aspirations in the East Asian and Indian Ocean Region (IOR), these exercise series also serve as joint positioning strategy by the three friendly navies.
Apart from the above, such exercises are also viewed with growing interest by civilian population. Military exercises, such as Iron Fist (Indian Air Force) and even Aero India, are rapidly gaining attention of civilians, especially youngsters who are interested in military hardware and opportunities to join the forces as profitable employment.
In such a scenario, it becomes necessary for the Ministry of Defence and the individual armed forces to view these regular exercises also from a different perspective. They serve as excellent marketing material to invite young Indian to understand more about the services and make them join.
However, sadly, this perception is missing. A deep search on social media, especially on the above mentioned social media platforms, unfortunately does not reveal any official publication from the Indian armed forces.
Here is a screenshot of the first page of Google search result when searching for the term ‘Malabar Exercises 2017’.(7)
While that was the result of a ‘traditional’ Google search, popular social media platforms, such as Twitter and YouTube, too turned out zero results on publications by the Defence Ministry, the Directorate of Public Relations or the Indian Navy itself.
These screenshots bring a critical question to the fore. When traditional news media channels are increasingly taking the social media route, why does the ‘source of the news’ itself seem invisible? In other words, why does not the Indian Navy (in this case) publish on its social media channels?
Silent dedicated service = Missed opportunities to garner positive image
This is a sad fact. It is as important to earn positive public opinion as it is to offer dedicated service to the nation, especially in a democratic set up as India’s.
Let’s look at this point considering another very popular social platform – Wikipedia. Almost any search on any popular browser, such as Google, would show up a Wikipedia page as one of the top ten search results. Searching for ‘Malabar Exercise’ throws up a relevant Wikipedia page as the first in the list
However, it is interesting to note that not a single image on the page is from the Ministry of Defence, DPR or the Indian Navy. A little search reveals that all images were taken by a ‘Mass Communication Specialist’ of the US Navy taken and released by the organization. When the exercise is titled ‘Malabar’ and orchestrated in Indian waters, why does the internet, especially the social media, not have anything published by the Indian Navy on this?
What makes an organization, such as the United States Navy, proactive in building its brand through active information dissemination than its Indian counterpart? Is it a matter of policy stemming from a very conservative outlook driven by operational requirements? Or is it still the remnants of traditional mindset conditioned by colonial servitude?
A deeper look seems that this lackadaisical approach to accept social media with all its advantages and challenges stems from the latter – a myopic and traditional mindset. Today’s operational directive for official social media accounts is in accordance with the ‘Framework & Guidelines for Use of Social Media by Government Organisations’ by the Department of Electronics & Information Technology, Ministry of Communications & Information Technology, Government of India.
Well, there seems to be nothing wrong with that, except that there is no creative element to the whole approach. Social Media is supposed to be just that – Social. It cannot be leveraged as Doordarshan.
If the Indian armed forces want to be reckoned as a power that awes enemies and as the profession of choice by ambitious young men and women of India, it has to project itself as such – just as large multinational corporations do. Marketing is everything.
A tip or two from our Malabar Exercise partner
In the United States’ Army, social media is considered for effective message propagation. The US Army Social Media Handbook states, “Army social media enables the Army Family around town, around the country and around the world to stay connected and spread the Army’s key themes and messages.
Every time a member of the Army Family joins Army social media, it increases the timely and transparent dissemination of information. It ensures that the Army’s story is shared honestly and directly to Americans where they are and whenever they want to see, read or hear it. Social media allows every Soldier to be a part of the Army story. By starting a discussion on Facebook, or commenting on a Soldier’s story on a blog, all Soldiers can contribute to the Army story. Social media is a cheap, effective and measureable form of communication. The Army uses social media to tell the Army’s story, but it also uses social media to listen.”(8)
In other words, the above points clearly elucidate an attitudinal change – a change in culture. Communication is very important when building an image – a positive cultural image.
In addition to a ‘cultural’ shift in mindset, it is also necessary to equip the Indian armed forces with positions within that enable suitable ‘content creation’. In the United States’ armed forces the positions of Mass Communication Specialist in the US Navy & Air Force and Public Affairs Officers (46A) in the army serve this purpose. They serve as enlisted photo journalists and provide some of the best on-the-field photography that would enrich social media campaigns.
(1) Yral Social Media Report 2016. Source: http://bestmediainfo.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/social-media-report-2016.pdf
(2) ‘India is now world’s third largest Internet user after U.S., China’, The Hindu, 24 August 2013. Source: http://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/technology/internet/india-is-now-worlds-third-largest-internet-user-after-us-china/article5053115.ece
(3) ‘Penetration of leading social networks in India as of 4th quarter 2016’, Statista Source: https://www.statista.com/statistics/284436/india-social-network-penetration/
(4) ‘Social, Digital and Mobile in India 2014’ Special report, We Are Social Source: https://wearesocial.com/sg/special-reports/social-digital-mobile-india-2014
(5) Prasant Naidu, ‘India Has 243.2M Internet Users And 106M Active Social Media Users’, Lighthouse Insights, 3 July 2014 Source: http://lighthouseinsights.in/india-has-243-2m-internet-users-and-106m-active-social-media-users.html/
(6) Nitin Gokhale, ‘Media-Military relations in the age of Twitter and Facebook’, DNA India, February 14, 2015 Source: http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/standpoint-media-military-relations-in-the-age-of-twitter-and-facebook-2060887
(7) As searched on 2nd October 2017
(8) US Army Social Media Handbook, Office of the Chief of Public Affairs, January 2011 Source: http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a549468.pdf