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As civil society actors in India wage daily battles against an increasingly authoritarian state which stifles dissent, one can only wonder if the dark irony of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s words, declaring civil society as a new frontier of war, was lost on him.
It may be useful, even imperative, to examine how this growing strife in civil society plays out on social media and other online spaces which profoundly influence the discourse, often in violent ways. In this regime’s playbook, offline and online messaging wars are deeply intertwined.
While Doval did not specify whom or what he meant by the term ‘civil society’, the assumption that the NSA most likely meant those who oppose the government is easy enough to make. Be they religious minorities, Dalits, journalists or human rights defenders, a long list of sedition charges and arrests under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act of several such people, in spite of scant reason or evidence, is proof enough.
Doval told police recruits in no uncertain terms that this is now “fourth generation warfare”, and that Indian civil society is prone to be manipulated and subverted by forces working against national interest. However, it can equally be argued that the NSA’s targeting of civil society must necessarily extend to include the Sangh parivar’s own ecosystem. In a political climate as polarised as India’s is today, individuals and affiliates of the Sangh parivar have seemingly successfully conflated national interest with political party interest. Their daily, abusive tirades against minorities and political opponents, by pitting their concerns against ‘the national interest’, have shown dangerous potential for real world harm – whether it is via the targeting of interfaith couples, Muslim cattle traders, protesting farmers, Dalit activists, Marxist liberals or secular Hindus.
New narratives that demonise these groups and individuals by rallying around lightening rod issues like free speech, food and cultural habits, and even class-based discrimination, are weaponised regularly by violent Hindutva actors who derive their legitimacy from the ruling political class, and its refusal to reign in such abuse.
In several instances, the link between online harms and offline violence is direct and clear. And while the question of platform responsibility – due to the potential for amplification of abuse by companies like Facebook (now Meta) and Twitter – has been the subject of much debate, recent revelations by whistleblowers Sophie Zhang and Frances Haugen who left Facebook are very instructive in this context.
The data and testimonies they presented reveal a dark truth – that a company such as Facebook, with users that make up nearly half the world’s population and a balance sheet larger than many small and middling nations, operates on the basis of its own set of rules, determined primarily by the bottom line. With ownership of Instagram and WhatsApp – perhaps the most worrisome platform of all, due to the ease and proliferation of its use amongst a vast population with varying literacy levels – Facebook’s default position of users, not technology, being responsible for the amplification of this violence rings hollow.
Their testimonies indicate that the Sangh ecosystem seemingly ‘gamed’ platform design to its own advantage. Its active use of social media platforms to launch a war against people they consider political, cultural and ideological adversaries has been aggressive, and is visibly dividing India’s social fabric. And, instead of taking down what many have advised the company’s top management to be hate ‘mongering’ in local contexts, even if it doesn’t fit Facebook’s own highly specific definitions of hate ‘speech’, platform algorithms that rely on clickbait-y binaries of us vs them, left vs right, good vs bad in the simplest terms to gain online traction, end up amplifying the hate, intentionally or otherwise.
And here lies the rub. The Narendra Modi-led BJP government has thus far claimed plausible deniability against any responsibility for the vitriolic abuse by many of its supporters online. Privately-run pages, individual users or fringe groups have acted in the name of Hindutva politics, but the government’s reasonable distance from them has meant an evident unwillingness to reign such actors in. In fact, citing the few instances where posts or pages of Hindutva supporters have been taken down, the government has even gone to the extent of flipping the argument, accusing platforms of a ‘Left-liberal bias’ and – joining some civil society voices – sought action from platforms like Facebook for laxity towards combating hate in India. But now, a new fourth generation war against civil society will force the NSA to use his own new framework and address this abuse.
Worse, there are other tricky questions that can pose problems for this newly constructed warfare paradigm. Where does the public locate the controversy using Pegasus software to survey and check on civil society? And how does it interact with social media platforms that have knowingly turned the other cheek to those who have abused their political and ideological proximity to the ruling regime?
A symbiotic link, created by this reluctance to act against Sangh parivar affiliates, is now being challenged by the state’s use of spyware that bypasses all social media privacy commitments. WhatsApp – used ubiquitously by the BJP’s IT Cell to drive daily propaganda – has taken on the Israeli company NSO for the illegal hack of its platform, using Pegasus. Apple has commended civil society groups like the Canada-based Citizen Lab who first uncovered the use of this spyware in 2019. Given that the NSO Group sells only to governments, Doval’s remarks on a war against civil society now pit these various, erstwhile symbiotic actors against each other.
As the Supreme Court-appointed committee looks into data privacy for citizens, it is no longer just free speech vs hate speech, but privacy vs the deep state, and privacy vs big tech, that has become the new frontier in this new war.
While India pushes for data localisation laws to ‘protect’ Indian citizens, the use of tech and social media by civil society actors supported by the state is inextricably linked to this fourth generation war that the NSA talks about, and its deep implications for the health of Indian democracy.
M.K. Venu is a Founding Editor at The Wire and Maya Mirchandani is the head of media studies at Ashoka University and Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.