The internet has become a part and parcel of our lives. Source of various effective communication channels, it has become like an eye and freedom tool for democracy. But is everything that we see on the internet true? What about those rumors which get circulated? Can the internet, considered as a means of freedom of expression in a democracy, also become a tool to undermine democracy? Perhaps one gets a better perspective when one sees it from the national security angle.
As things stand, the global security environment is becoming more complex, unstable and uncertain. Non-traditional security threats have increased globally. Engagement in gray zone conflicts has been posing hybrid threats to modern security. Disinformation, deception, misinformation and confirmation bias tools and actions have been taking place for hybrid warfare. In the face of a flood of disinformation and online propaganda, the state mechanism looks completely insufficient and inactive to do anything about it. Thus disinformation and online propaganda, which the internet helps sustain, has given enormous threats to national security.
Intense competition has increased not only between the states but also between the non-state and non-military actors. South Asia has become the center of the polarization of the world powers. The growing military strategy, military modernization, military alliances, and regional domination of powerful nations poses a serious security challenge to Nepal as well.
In recent months, global powers are competing to provide development aids to Nepal. Development aids would be fine but they are also spreading online propaganda through the internet to spread false information and misinformation to create wrong impressions about the rival countries and to sow the seeds of division among the Nepali people in the process. False information is spread against a project funded by a certain country and people make their opinions about that project based on the same. Or contents are generated to malign certain countries and present others as good. Online media has been used for this purpose. This is the reason Nepal needs to rein in the false news propaganda regime that seems to be flourishing in recent times. This is because if the right information does not reach the general public at the right time, it will have a big impact on national security.
Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter help spread fake news and disinformation. Many people fall for it and come to believe it as true. Probably because of this, many in rural villages come to believe in false things as truth and vice versa. Besides, social media-generated fake news, disinformation and misinformation instill in people negative perceptions about the government, political system, social institutions, neighbors and friendly countries.
Perils of disinformation
Primarily disinformation serves to weaken the state. Criminal groups or state-sponsored groups deliberately share false information to damage the state’s reputation. There are many such instances from the past.
In 1983, the Patriot, a pro-Soviet Indian paper that often published pieces provided by KGB agents, released a story claiming that the US military created the AIDS virus and released it as a weapon. The story began to spread rapidly and people came to believe it as true. In 1987 again, the Soviet-controlled press reprinted and rebroadcast it in over 80 countries in 30 languages. So it soon began to appear that the Americans were the ones who had created AIDS.
The fact was that the AIDS virus was terrifying and not well understood at the time. This propaganda by Soviet disinformation was especially targeted at damaging the image of the US.
In 2017, during the French presidential elections, a duplicate version of the Belgian newspaper Le Soir ran a fake article claiming that Emmanuel Macron was being funded by Saudi Arabia and he was the candidate preferred by Saudi Arabia.
Social media-generated fake news, disinformation and misinformation instill in people negative perceptions about the government, political system, social institutions and neighbors and friendly countries.
Throughout the years 2019, 2020 and 2021, Covid-19 spread terror all over the world. During the global health crisis time, many online portals, some intentionally others unintentionally, generated incomplete, false and misleading information about Covid-19 and its origin.
It is obvious how and why disinformation harms. First, disinformation impacts national politics and geopolitics. Second, it creates a false narrative about geopolitics and its actors. Third, it is used to kill democratic values. Powerful nations create fake news contents deliberately to manipulate and mislead the people, so that they can build alliances or perpetuate hegemony as per their interests. Fourth, it can damage economic, social and cultural aspects of life. More dangerous, it can break the trust and value of democratic institutions, and at sometimes even promote digital violence and repression.
What should be done?
The flow of misinformation in Nepal is intensifying. This is affecting the state, institutions, national politics, and security organizations. Fake news contents are also being spread for personal character assassinations. Disinformation has to be nipped in the bud but it is not an easy task to counter disinformation, online propaganda and fake news. The catch is failure to prevent disinformation and misinformation on time could lead to a serious national security crisis in the long run.
To control this, the state should formulate a national cyber security policy and fact check system. It should be noted that spreading false information and online propaganda amounts to cybercrime. Those who publish and spread misleading information should be prosecuted. Similarly, strict action should be taken against those who spread false information against the state.
The right to freedom of opinion and expression is the constitutionally guaranteed right of every Nepali citizen. Everyone should respect the right to privacy. But in the name of democracy, online propaganda and disinformation should not be allowed to be used as tools to further geopolitical rivalries or for any other bad motives. For effective prevention and control of the fake news world, the government mechanisms need to come up with special initiatives. Nepal should never become the playground of disinformation against neighbors and friendly countries. Nepal should not allow any element to do so. National interest is what matters for Nepal. Nepal should play ‘national interest card,’ not any other state’s card. Nepal wants harmony not hegemony from its aid and development partners.
Narayan Adhikari is a researcher on national security and terrorism.