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  • Writer's pictureRaghu Raman

Social Media Wars

If a picture is worth a thousand words, videos must transmits tomes. Unfortunately what both convey need not necessarily be the truth. The current ‘wars’ being played out in social media, be they about contrarian positions in Kashmir, political disagreements, religious disputes or simply spewing parochial hatred – the incendiary danger of this dimension is being perilous ignored.

Contrary to popular belief, the human brain does very little of analytical thinking. Over 90% of our decisions are heavily influenced by the reptilian and the limbic part of our brain. The neo-cortex or that part of our brain which examines facts, merits, evidence and long term implications before arriving to a conclusive judgment, is seldom used, especially in the context of issues associated with primal needs like security and survival. Also, the human brain has several biases which seriously impair our judgment capabilities.

For instance, we are disproportionately agitated if the sensory inputs are visual in nature. A gruesome picture or shocking video is far more likely to trigger reflexive repulsion than textual information. That incidentally, is the psychological principle behind pictorial warnings on tobacco products or the shock effect of ‘throat slitting’ videos.

Similarly our brains are affected by ‘availability bias’ which means that if we are exposed to more messaging of a particular type, we tend to overestimate its prominence & probability. This is why we are shaken more by a few dozen deaths in a terror attack rather than millions because of road accidents or preventable diseases.

The third problem is that once our primal instincts are stirred, we also begin to change physiologically. This is the reason we cry during depressive movies, because even though our neo-cortex ‘knows’ what we are watching is just make believe – the reptilian brain nevertheless takes over our emotions and renders our reactions emotional, rather than rational.

While we are seduced by the recent techno-utopia of information highways, high definition streaming video on demand, digital India etc. we are largely unaware of the insidious ability of social media to manipulate individual and group behaviour. Several experiments, including the infamous one conducted by Facebook in 2012, have conclusively demonstrated that shared reality of entire communities can be manipulated by simply presenting selective information. That, technically is not even lying.

While the jury may be out on whether these ‘video wars’ are being managed as campaigns by dedicated cadres of various stakeholders or spontaneous expression by uncoordinated individuals, their damage potential is grievous and starting to show. World over, people get lynched based on misinformation, communities become parochial because they feel threatened, countries go to war because they think another country possesses weapons of mass destruction and people who lived in harmony for decades bay for their neighbour’s blood because of misconceptions.

Such trepidation is a powder keg awaiting a spark. Agitated environments are fertile hunting ground for lumpen elements. When incidents of social violence are condoned, or even encouraged, such elements have the potential to explode a situation uncontrollably. And our adversaries both internal and external can leverage this psychological underbelly to precipitate an implosion.

For example what stops Pakistan or China from launching structured psychological operations by creating ‘authentic video footages’ that depict communities (minority or majority) being persecuted or even brutally killed? Or for that matter, why could this not be done by vested interests within the country to settle scores, dominate areas, polarise groups or incite riots to simply loot. This strategy could even be used to discredit the government or official apparatuses like the security forces to erode their legitimacy and efficacy.

As countries ranging from mighty superpowers to tin pot dictatorships have discovered, social media is uncontrollable. Devious use of this medium has the potential to topple regimes, incite violence or even discredit elaborate democratic processes. While many governments including ours have tried to ‘block’ or ban objectionable, illegal or incendiary content, current technologies, the pervasiveness of social media and the quintessential argument between free speech and censorship – have made that option impotent. Even the US with all its resourcefulness has been unable to prevent terror groups from leveraging social media platforms – most of which are not only US owned but also signatories to the PRISIM programme. India has little chance of succeeding with a censorship or a control based strategy.

As India races towards digitization, we need to confront the reality that every mobile phone is a potential psychological operations launch pad. For the first time since civilisation and governance began, there is a situation where state, non-state or even individual actors have the potential to conduct psychological warfare with absolute immunity.

Communities, ideologies, beliefs, caste, creed and even skin colour – can be set against each other, causing a self-fuelling implosion. And the narrative doesn’t even have to be half true.

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