How social media has become a weapon of the modern armed forces

Lt Gen Satish Dua
Lt Gen Satish DuaMar 12, 2020 | 12:11

How social media has become a weapon of the modern armed forces

Of late, it has increasingly become apparent that social media is more than a tool today. It has become a weapon in its own right.

The Balakot airstrikes are a classic example of a successful operation not being backed adequately by an equally strong information campaign. Consequently, the adversary gained an upper hand in influencing the narrative.

The Uri example

However, the cross-border raids in response to the Uri terror attack, popularly known as ‘surgical strikes’, were announced by India’s then Director General of Military Operations, Lt Gen Ranbir Singh, to the world during a press conference on July 12, 2018.


In the case of Balakot, the news was broken first by the Director-General, Inter-Services Public Relations (DG ISPR) of Pakistan Army. In an early-morning tweet, it said that an Indian airstrike into Pakistan’s territory was forced to drop bombs hastily because of their alert and timely countermeasures, and it caused damage only to trees.

India’s response in the media, and on social media, over the next two days left a lot to be desired, including the news of the capture of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman.

Of late, it has increasingly become apparent that social media is, arguably, the most significant tool of this dimension. In fact, it is more than a tool today — it has become a weapon. Shaping narratives are as important as combining different instruments of power to exert influence. As wars become hybrid in nature, countries engage in different dimensions like the military, diplomatic, political, economic, cyber, social and everything else in between. Therefore, when the military bans its use in parts, or when social media is denied in Kashmir for long durations, does it really serve the purpose, or is it self-defeating? Do we lose out on more than we gain? Does reluctance to engage actively on social media display our weakness in the field?


First, it is important to understand why the military finds itself at odds with the unbridled use of social media. The military is secretive by nature, disseminates by permissions and is hierarchical in structure. Meanwhile, social media is almost intrusive by nature, spontaneous in dissemination and absolutely flat in structure. Social media, more than regular media, tends to go for speed of dissemination rather than verification of facts. However, the military does not give out any information, until it is fully formed, double-checked and confirmed. By then it is often too late and the world has moved on to a new story.

Information weapon

However, given the power of social media, there is no choice but to learn to exploit this powerful enabler to our advantage. If we do not, space will be filled up by the other side, which will be hard to reclaim later. Even organisations rooted in medieval fundamentals like the Islamic State or ISIS have grasped its power and are using it skilfully for recruitment and propagation.

Given the power of social media, there is no choice but to learn to exploit this powerful enabler to our advantage. (Photo: Reuters)


The US Army encourages the use of social media by its soldiers (‘embrace’ is the word used in their manual, DTM-2010), albeit with some caution. Five years ago, the British Army raised the 77th Brigade to take social media and cyber warfare to a new level of employment. Officers have to start a Twitter handle in their name and are groomed to use it by their superior officers. Israeli Army personnel regularly engage in Twitter wars with Hamas Twitter handles.

Today, this is the best medium to connect, especially with the younger generation. Social media is augmenting, and gradually replacing, regular media. Therefore, instead of banning or discouraging its use, the way ahead lies in educating soldiers how to use it well without compromising security, training those who deal with it and involving professionals to exploit its power to the fullest. Army officers and men can be used as the Army’s best messengers to stay connected and spread their message and stories.

Owning narratives

Training and educating them to be sensitive to security and propriety will fetch good dividends. Those who have to deal with social media have to be trained professionally so that they can be more effective. It is also far too important to be left to amateurs. We need to bring in domain experts.

In this era of core competencies, it is inadvisable to do everything yourself. Building up a credible narrative based on truth is an urgent national need, not only in Kashmir but also on several emotive contemporary issues in the country. We are losing the narrative, whereas both our adversaries are employing social media aggressively, based on fake narratives, and are filling up the space left open by us. It is time we created a million social media activists from among our soldiers, also use the Territorial Army models and involve the involved citizenry imaginatively in this national cause, lest we learn at our peril.

Ex-servicemen can also form an effective part of the value chain. What is all the more surprising is that we are unable to use social media more skilfully at a national level, more so when the political party in power uses social media so adroitly in elections, inter-alia.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Last updated: March 14, 2020 | 12:34
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