The Army hierarchy, inundated with videos of operational areas floating on social media groups, dissenting views and irksome questions being asked about the manner in which they have handled situations has passed sweeping orders to its personnel to terminate their social media accounts from the likes of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc.
This follows an earlier order on restricting intermingling between Serving soldiers and veterans in WhatsApp groups as this was perceived to have been the reason for the spread of rumours and leading to low morale in the organization.
Even if such orders may seem ridiculous to an outsider, the Army hierarchy groomed and moulded in an environment where orders are sacrosanct and inviolate, this is the easiest way to stem apparent dissension to their authority. However, in passing these orders, the hierarchy seems to have forgotten certain fundamentals. Firstly, for orders to be followed there exists a fine sentiment of ‘trust’ between the originator and the followers.
This ‘Trust’ is based on the fundamentals of loyalty, credibility and faith. It is no secret that these sentiments have majorly been eroded over these recent years; the reasons for this are enumerated further on in this article. Secondly, orders passed should not only be verifiable, but should also stand scrutiny in the ‘Court of Law’. Is the Army hierarchy justified in gagging its personnel? Is the order beneficial to the organization?
Rumour mongering is a punishable offence under the Army Act. This stresses the impact of rumours on morale and the gravity of addressing the cause. The oxford dictionary defines rumour as ‘unconfirmed’ and ‘false’ information. But, at an individual level, can an information be a rumour if it is from a credible source and backed by irrefutable evidence?
Today, the term rumour is better defined as ‘differing from the official version’, even if the official version may be a story-line woven to hide damaging truths or lapses in planning or execution. The main reason rumours arise is because there are huge unaddressed information gaps in the story-line.
For example, when the Army issued the statement that 20 Soldiers were killed in action in Galwan without filling in ‘Why’, ‘How’ and ‘Where’ (Indian or Chinese controlled territory) it happened, it left a huge gap which was bound to be filled up by all versions of information/disinformation. Naturally, the media was abuzz with all kinds or versions, half-truths and speculations.
A similar sequence of events also happened post Uri incident, the Balakot Strikes and the riposte by Pakistan. Why did the Army hierarchy leave glaring informational voids? Was it unaware of its ramifications?
It is not that the Army is unaware of it. The first thing that is taught in the Information Warfare Course of the Army is never to leave gaps in information that can lead to rumours. Nothing damages the morale of the Army soldier more than rumours. When rumour proves to be truer than the official version, the first thing that suffers is the credibility and faith in the senior hierarchy within the organisation.
While on one side, gaps in dissemination are left out in operational information, it has now become routine to view administrative actions such as curbs on Canteen stores for defence personnel, availing hotel facilities on temporary duties to prevent corruption, taxing of disability pensions etc appearing in national media even before official correspondences. How does one explain this dichotomous use of media space? What is being covered up in the operational side and what is being demonstrated elsewhere?
Outbursts in social media are symptoms indicative of resentment within the organisation. The reason for the resentment must be identified and addressed. Shutting out the symptoms is not the correct form of approach. The orders restricting interactions with the veterans on whatsapp groups is evidence of an estranged idea in the senior military hierarchy.
Instead of understanding and addressing the genuine concerns of veterans (and siding by them in times of duress), the community was ostracised against. We may be the only Defence Service in the world which DOES NOT view the veterans as ambassadors of our organisation and preaches segregation.
Somehow the discourses on Social Media by the uniformed fraternity is being viewed as an organisation and security threat. But is it so? Is not the deliberate holding-back of critical information for public consumption (not sensitive information) that lends itself to rumours more of a threat? A childhood saying encapsulates today’s media usage, ‘to prevent exposing one lie, you need to say a thousand others’.
The NATO nations are more in operations than our own. They too are democracies, but have not issued any gag orders. Opinions and dissenting voices must be encouraged if they are logical and not vitriolic. It needs to be understood that voicing of dissent on social media platforms is a fallout of the failure of a sounding & redressal mechanism within the Army.
This mechanism is now defunct and is unable to address genuine concerns or provide feedback. Therefore, the first step is to create such a platform or overhaul existing ones giving them more clout and teeth to address issues. Here is where we can leverage the manpower and expertise vested in our veteran community.
Is managing the media such a challenge for our Defence Forces? How can we exploit it better? To answer these questions, we must outline the ground realities.
- No Officer, soldier in the Army or Veteran is Anti-Organisation or Anti-National.
- Everybody understands his/her commitment to the cause and will never knowingly give away operational details.
- Every person is thus an information operative working towards the greater National Goal.
- There will be some who will be acerbic and malicious in intent. But these will be exceptions and there are penal rules to take care of such elements.
Far from shying away from the media domain, the Army should be exploiting it to its benefit. But the underlying requisite to that is the dissemination of accurate, credible information which forms the base for any further build-up of narratives. Here is where we need to create the second empowered institution.
Learning from the lessons gained in the recent situations, the need of the hour is a Public Interface system of high integrity that can give out true and factual information (without compromising operational secrecy). Such a system does exist in the form of the office of ADGPI.
However, as the body is not independent and reports to the Army Headquarters, the information it disseminates is subject to alterations. In order to institutionalise the ADGPI it must undergo certain radical reforms.
(a) Within it must be vested the powers of a singular agency entitled to provide all military related information to the public.
(b) It must be made completely independent in the reporting channel and must be populated with both uniformed personnel & veterans.
(c) The PROs (Public Relation Officers) of various commands must operate within its organisation.
(d) The ADGPI must be empowered to investigate first hand through its representatives facts of an incident to formulate its story-line.
(e) In order to be completely independent the institution must be headed by a veteran of repute selected by Ex-Chiefs of the Army, Air Force and Navy.
The strength of democracy lies in the creation of strong independent institutions that act as checks and balances. Within the larger organisation of the Armed Forces which function on rigid hierarchy and orders, the need for creating smaller independent institutions is even greater. These institutions & processes will only help the Army evolve by identifying lacuna's and rectifying them.
“Without the help of a mirror, even the best dressed man can never be too sure about his turnout.”
Comments by Air Cmde Suryakant Nijanand Bal AVSM (Retd)
The author has made (not scored) several points, mainly based on assumptions emanating from his own perceptions: and in which it is not too difficult to identify significant elements of endemic bias. The orders seeking to restrict access to social media are indeed considered by me (a veteran of 18 years) to be entirely valid – and on grounds of “Security of Information”. It is not possible to determine who all have access to social media and which transcends international boundaries as well.
As a passive participant in Facebook, it is indeed possible to detect the (sometimes hilarious) thinking of participants (including serving personnel and veterans of all hues). As a human failing it is perfectly possible for serving officers and personnel to (we will assume inadvertently – though not always) put sensitive service information for all to read and interpret – and especially by those who have no business to do so.
Without sounding to be suspicious by nature (but keeping an open mind), the apprehension that somewhere “out there” and in the twilight there are shadowy agencies (both external and internal) not well disposed to us who are diligently monitoring and analyzing these comments, and assessing the state of preparedness and morale (and especially lack of it) among the Faujis. It is, after all, their job to do so.
It is difficult to simply wish away that nagging feeling. Similarly, it is possible to glean information of courses that are being run, as well the feelings of satisfaction/dissatisfaction of participants. The same holds good when grievances of (non) promotion are freely aired on the electronic media. The social media is for airing social opinions and not for opinions on matters military.
My rather unfortunate experience has been of some (though not all) veterans constantly criticizing how badly the service has treated (only) them in terms of pay, perks, pension and, of course, promotions: quite freely airing views that sometimes have little basis - if at all. A visit to our messes, institutes and clubs reveals that (especially at the bar when the level of spirits in bottles rapidly dwindles) tongues can (and do) wag beyond permissible limits. It is useful to remember that the walls have ears and the tree's eyes.
On several occasions, the behaviour of veterans is far removed from what was displayed in the service, leading one to suspect that once the lid of the rules is lifted, veterans regress to their pre-service attitudes and behaviour. It is not too difficult to envisage the detrimental effect this could have on those serving. After all they too are young, impressionable - and human. Therefore it is not only preferable, but necessary, to restrict contact between veterans and those serving. Discretion needs to be exercised by both parties.
The position that “…NATO nations are more in operations than our own…” is at best a hilarious assumption that needs to be left alone. The very raison d’être of NATO is indeed under scrutiny by many of its own members. The assumption that all serving personnel and officers (as also veterans) are not anti-Organization or anti-National is sweeping and naïve indeed.
In any organization there are those who are willing to sell their Motherland “for a few dollars more”. Eternal vigilance is indeed the price to pay for freedom – and the social media is to be treated with extreme caution. This reminds one of the old adage “…give thy ears to all and thy tongue to none…” This should include the pen and computer mouse as well.
(The author has served in the Indian Army, was deployed for two tenures in Ladakh region and commanded a battalion on the Line-of-Control in Kargil. Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')