Social media platforms have effectively supplanted traditional information networks in India. The relationship between online content, traditional media and political networks is so strong that the messages are propagated effectively to even those who are not yet online.

Many times, false information, intentionally or unintentionally, gets transferred through social media that manipulates the beliefs of the people towards a particular community, the government or some ongoing issue.

Public opinion is the currency of democracy, and, therefore, vested interests cannot be allowed to hijack public opinion through the organised dissemination of misinformation.

The internet is the largest experiment involving anarchy in history. (.. .) It is a source for tremendous good and potentially dreadful evil, and we are only just beginning to witness its impact on the world stage.” — Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman, Google and Jared Cohen, Director, Google Ideas

Social Media

Social media primarily includes internet or cellular phone based applications and tools to share information among people. Social media includes popular networking websites, like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. It involves blogging and forums and any aspect of an interactive presence which allows individuals the ability to engage in conversations with one another, often as a discussion over a particular blog post, news article, or event.

Social Media Reach

There were 658.0 million internet users in India in January 2022. With the ease of internet access, the number of active social media users in India stood at 330 million in 2019 and it is expected to reach 448 million by 2023. India has world’s largest number of Facebook Users with over 294 million users, overtaking US. The report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India says, “77% of urban internet users and 92% of rural users “consider mobile as the primary device for accessing the Internet, largely driven by availability and affordability of smart phones”. With over 658 million internet users, India is the second largest online market, ranked only behind China. Thus, the availability of low cost mobile devices has become a game changer.


Negative Impact of Social Media

In the times of social media, where information is conveyed instantly, misinformation and rumour spread with same speed and ease. This could be dangerous to the security paradigm where government agencies have to counter multitude of factors working simultaneously.

The sheer scale as well as complexities that arise owing to negative implications of the social media vis-a-vis security paradigm could be elaborated as below:

  • Spreading Misinformation and Rumours
    • Mobile and social network interface was used to send offensive clips and hate messages that triggered panic and mass exodus of north east Indians from large parts of India in the aftermath of the ethnic clashes in Assam in 2012.
  • Inciting Communal and Sectarian Violence
    • In September 2013, a morphed video on YouTube was used to fan communal riots in Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh and led to mass panic. This incident snowballed into a cyber-security challenge and exposed a facet of the medium that could be exploited by anti-national elements and required immediate attention.
  • Radicalisation of Youth
    • The root of radicalisation lies in the socio-political alienation of a vulnerable individual and according to available literature goes through four stages: what is happening is not right; it is not fair; laying the blame on or demonising the perceived enemy. Online campaigns to radicalise youth are used by various terrorist organisations such as ISIS, the Hizbul Mujahideen, Al-Qaeda etc. The ISIS group is known to operate 96,000 Twitter handles, each spewing out 2,000 venomous tweets daily. Each minute 300 hours of content is added on to YouTube, which includes terror propaganda and radical Islam with an aim to recruit global Muslim youth (As per 2015 data).
    • The current trends in Jammu and Kashmir reveal that a religious Islamic identity is trying to overtake a political movement. This was recently manifested in 11 unmasked Kashmiri youth armed with assault rifles uploading their photographs in IS style on Facebook. The government lack the technological capability to track, monitor or react to this avalanche of bytes in the virtual world which are radicalising youth in the name of Islam or a romantic Caliphate concept of yesteryears.
  • Used by Terrorist Organisation to Recruit
    • Social Media is being used by terrorist organisations to hunt potential recruits and lure them into their organisation. ISIS has devised a methodology to attract and recruit members for terrorist operations through online platforms like, Facebook, YouTube etc. It has caused people from various countries to join the ISIS or carry out “lonewolfs” attack in their respective countries.
  • Coordinate Activities against the State
    • Communication is the lynch-pin of coordinating any activity. Social Media platforms like Facebook and communication apps like WhatsApp could be used to plan, coordinate and execute activities against the state. In August 2017, large number of people were mobilised to gather in north Indian cities of Panchkula and Chandigarh, in aftermath of a religious guru’s conviction in a rape case, the mob coordinated activities of vandalism and arson against the state. Similar, social media tools are used by terrorist and extremist organisations to coordinate activities against the state.
  • False Opinion Building
    • “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” The quote
      that is often, and ironically, wrongly attributed to Joseph Goebbels the propaganda minister during Nazi Germany – perhaps best sums up what’s happening across the world.
    • Repetitive tweets and posts on a particular topic, or hashtag, are aimed at trending the related subject to the extent that it becomes a popular, believable narrative. Social Media platforms are used to create false opinion. The world has seen most prominent example of this phenomena in US presidential elections 2016. In India also, fabricated and manipulated content are gaining steam, leading to the possibility of potential violence in the society.
  • Propaganda Impacting International Perception
    • Pakistan in UN General Assembly 2017 used fake image of a young girl as a victim to pellet gun attack by Indian security forces in Kashmir. Later on it was found that the image was of a Palestine citizen, this is not a standalone incident, hostile countries use propaganda to show the target country in bad light impacting international perception.
  • Creating False Insecurities among Citizens
    • A rumour spread by self-styled cow protectors in October 2015 provoked an entire village to attack a Muslim family in Dadari (Noida). The mob lynched 52 year-old head of the house Mohammed Akhlaq allegedly for consuming beef. WhatsApp played a role in spreading this rumour among the villagers.
      Such incidents give rise to insecurities among citizens, that they could be lynched on the basis of mere suspicion.

Fake News in Post-Truth Times

We are living in post-truth times. In the post-truth discourse, experts are dismissed, alternative facts are (sometimes flagrantly) offered, and public figures can offer opinions on pretty much anything. And thanks to social media, pretty much anyone can be a public figure. Fake news refers to the fictitious articles/media that are deliberately circulated in the internet with the aim of deceiving the readers. The news creator earns a profit with every user clicking to view it. The visitors are given an impression that they are visiting a trusted source of news and in this way it is made viral over the internet to increase its dissemination. Other than having an impact on the news readers, it also has an impact on the election process, pushing the pattern to shift towards one side .

Implications on India
  • With the concept of fake news becoming a global phenomenon with the growth of social media, India has also not stayed far behind in this regard. According to a study of online news consumers in 2015, social media has been one of the main sources of their online news. One of the strongest evidences of fake news came up during the time of the demonetization drive.
Instances of Fake News in India
  • The concept of fitting a GPS chip on the Rs 2000 notes made big news until the RBI clarified officially through its press release that no such advanced features were used in the new currency notes.
  • Another source identified is the WhatsApp wherein a video from Bangladesh was being circulated by radical right wing groups after a minor communal disturbance that occurred in Bihar. The main cause of such news in India is that the legal news organizations too are unaware of the manner of verification and reporting they are supposed to undertake especially with respect to the news in circulation in social media. They are so highly concerned with increasing their own ‘trending’ contents ahead of the others that they let the news go unverified.

The only way to combat this issue is to increase the commitment of the journalists through proper education and values. One of the most innovative ways suggested is to challenge the news spread
through social media through an equal over flooding of true news through conventional media. This will be possible only if the journalists stick to their practices and avoid faking of news.

Use of Social Media by Non-State Actors

The decentralized and egalitarian nature of internet and social media has empowered not only the netizens but enabled anti-social elements to undertake subversive activities. Cyber incidents have witnessed a steep rise with the increasing penetration of technology. Non-state actors have been using social media and internet to spread rumours, fake news, propaganda, raise funds, indoctrinate and recruit members. End to end encryption technologies have provided enhanced secrecy and made real time interception by security agencies very difficult.

ISIS: ‘Virtual’ Threats to India
  • India has trouble on its hands. Media reports of NIA investigations of ISIS India sympathisers reveal that almost two-third Indians arrested detained or counselled for links to ISIS were from middle and upper middle class families holding graduate degrees and or completing their masters. In contrast, an overwhelming majority of terrorism suspects interrogated, before the rise of ISIS, were from poor families. According to the agencies a possible class shift among those attracted to violent groups in India has taken place. Educated, middle-class youngsters in India appear to be more drawn to ISIS, moved as much by the terrorist group’s brand of global jihad as by perceived injustices against Muslims at home. Once again social media propaganda has been identified as the medium driving this online radicalisation and puts emphasis on controlling the narrative on the perception wars of communities on sensitive issues. The data suggests a direct correlation between key events with religious undertones in India and spikes in internet traffic from the country to jihadist websites over the past two years. It is no wonder that the propaganda video released by the ISIS regarding targeting of Indian Muslims, plays on perceived insecurities of minority communities.
Methods used by ISIS to Recruit in India
  • ISIS has mastered the art of selling terror and ideology instantly. Videos use gaming language, graphics, and effects coupled with trending hash tags, to target their global audience- disenchanted youth who are spoiling for a fight. ISIS speaks to them in a language they understand. This explains the shift in the target audience ISIS seems to be attracting in India. A toxic mix of ideology and technology makes for a potent challenge.
Militancy in J&K
  • Overt war of ideas has serious consequences for India’s national security as seen in the resurgence of unrest in the state of Jammu and Kashmir in July 2016. The case in point is the mass violence that was triggered in the aftermath of the killing of Burhan Wani, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander who was infamous as the “Facebook Militant” in mass media.

National Social Media Policy

  • The government is finalising a policy which is aimed at keeping a hawk’s eye vigil on the social media to check if it is being “misused” to conspire against India and spread anti-national propaganda. At present, there is only a set of “do’s and don’ts” for the social media which needs to be graduated to a full-fledged guidelines that should be adopted on such a network.
  • The move assumes significance as there have been instances where terrorists were found to be using social media to conspire against the country or to propagate anti-India materials. There have also been instances where rumours spread on the social media had resulted in violence and tense situation in different parts of the country.
  • The misuse of social media is more challenging especially with reference to the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. The stake holders are discussing ways to finalise a policy to help intelligence agencies and security forces effectively deal with any propaganda. The infrastructure requirements like manpower and technological needs for monitoring of the social media are also being finalised.

De-Radicalization Strategy

  • Faced with the challenges of both home-grown extremism and the global Islamic State (IS) threat, Maharashtra Anti- Terror Squad (ATS) has devised a strategy to de-radicalise youth by gaining trust of parents. Police came across the different levels of radicalisation by interacting with youths and found that recruiting online is four times faster than physical meetings and still effective. The online process is 100 per cent safe for the handler as he never shows his face to the recruits.
  • Under the new policy, many youths have been deradicalised with the help of community leaders and NGOs and brought to mainstream. The strategy followed could be elaborated as:
    1. Formation of “extremism counselling hotline” similar to the one set up in Austria, which will enable parents, teachers and friends of “vulnerable and indoctrinated” youth to seek professional help for their “deradicalization”.
    2. Apart from this, the Indian security establishment is also looking at US’ counter radicalization program focused on community outreach and UK ’s Prevent and Channel programmes.
    3. Government should reach out to the minority community and win their hearts at all costs.
      • The approach mustfollow a carefully crafted deradicalisation plan which includes: awareness of the contagion, detection of potential and existing recruits and finally remedial action.
      • There is also a need to focus on potential target groups and take steps to improve the conditions of disadvantaged minority groups so that they are not influenced by messages of radicalisation.
      • Big data analytics can be used to discern the level of radicalisation of potential recruits, to help unravel the roots of radicalisation.
      • Religious leaders should be encouraged to counsel against radicalization.

Use of Social Media by Law Enforcement Agencies

  • Law enforcement agencies across the globe are using a superior form of “Open source Intelligence” to engage, collate, analyse and predict, and share intelligence using data gleaned from social media networks, also known as Social media intelligence. This analysis uses social media data, that is, all the user generated data on social media platforms with their metadata (which includes information of the user, location, time and date details of post, number of people who viewed and shared the post, etc.) to identify people, networks, patterns and events that contribute to actionable intelligence.
  • Indian experience in using content from open social media platforms for intelligence gathering has been limited to a few pilot projects. Indian police personnel do believe in the usefulness of social media in providing actionable intelligence in two prominent aspects rumours that manifest in violent public upsurge and simmering public opinion about various issues. There was broad agreement on the usefulness of the medium’s speed of delivering real time data for predicting protests and its reach in emergencies like riots, terror strikes or countering of hateful propaganda which is inciting violence.
Social Media Labs Project
  • In 2013, the Maharashtra Police took the first initiative in this direction by setting up a pilot project to track activity on social media to gauge public moods on issues and ‘step-up its preparedness’ in anticipating and handling sudden flare ups. The app tracks and provides sentiment analysis, identifies behavioural patterns, influencers and advocates, tracks increase in chatter and generates alerts in real time on social media platforms.

Measures to Tackle Threats from Social Media

  • Institutionalise blueprint for a National Social Media Policy: The Indian establishment needs to recognise the medium and grant it a legal status if it needs to deal with the multitude of challenges that rise out of it effectively.
  • Implement and Institutionalise the Framework of Guidelines on Social Media Engagement: Department of Electronics and Information Technology’s Framework of guidelines has laid down elaborate guiding principles for engagement of social media by government agencies.
  • Create Awareness on Challenges posed by Social Media: There exists a huge lack of awareness amongst citizens, law enforcement agencies and higher levels on the potential of misuse of social media.
  • Create Organisational Ecosystems, Circumvent Hierarchies, Encourage Outreach: Change the approach to the use of social media by empowering personnel to engage proactively, and sustain channels of communication rather than looking at it from purely an observer/monitoring perspective.
  • Empower Agencies, Build Talent, and Use Specialists: Decisions on dedicated teams, with talent specific to technical, legal and soft skill capabilities required for social media engagement. Inclusion of lateral entry specialists to handle specific requirements like 24×7 tech-support/ or soft skills, etc., need to be debated. Practical solutions need to be pushed in line with the larger debate on police reforms.
  • Replicate“Social Media Labs” acrossthe Country: Use the success and work on the limitations of the social media labs experiment for the future.
  • Demarcate Budgets, Standardise tools and Platforms: There is a need to nationalise the efforts of leveraging social media and that will require demarcation of specific budgets, standardisation of tools and technology platforms.
  • Expand and Define Scope of Public-Private Partnerships: There exists a huge talent pool in the private sector that the government can usefully leverage.
  • Frameworks must build capacity at local level and share information at federal level: The framework to deal with social media challenges requires building capacity at local levels, since issues begin at this stage.
  • Outline standard operating procedures: This includes a specific list of do’s and don’ts regarding the use of social media data for generating actionable intelligence.
  • To be set in motion in case of a cyber-social media attack: These operating procedures must define rules of engagement for all stakeholders involved in the situation. Provisions of 24×7 complaint review mechanisms.
  • For exchange of information with intermediaries/ service providers of social media: Since most social media content providers have headquarters outside India standard protocols for exchange of information with social media service providers must be developed to ensure no loss of time due to communication gaps.
  • Re-haul legal regime: focus on loop holes and censorship and privacy issues: It is imperative that the medium be given a legal status and thought be put into a new legal regime which can manage the gamut of challenges posed by social media.
  • Continue awareness campaigns, build centres of excellence, create and exchange best practices: Thought needs to put into revised curriculum in universities to produce experts who will fulfil these demands. There is also a need to build a knowledge base of best practices and share them internally as ‘lessons learnt’ for institutional memory.
  • The Social Media Communication Hub: It is a proposed project which seeks to monitor social media platforms and analyze the data to provide feedback to the government. The initiative is being implemented by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. It seeks to collect, compile and analyze news trending in districts across India. The project would help the government gather information on the progress of its flagship welfare schemes. The project would help to prevent the spread of rumours or fake news which could lead to adverse situations.
  • The project envisages the following:
    • (a) A social media analytical tool
    • (b) A private data centre.
    • (c) Preparation of analytics reports
    • (d) Pre-and post-establishment support (human resource)
    • (e) Predictive Analysis
    • (f) A knowledge management system

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments