By Samir Saran
Even as the dust settles on the Balakot airstrikes, public sentiment in Pakistan and India is anything but settled. The aggravation of public opinion is in no small part attributable to the role of the media—both old and new. While Vietnam was the first televised war, though limited to American TV, what we are seeing today in India is more easily comparable to the unprecedented global television coverage of the Gulf War of 1990-91. Then, as now, a breathless public was glued to live prime-time reporting of missile strikes and battalion movements.
Today, of course, the times, the actors and the technologies are different. In 1990-91, and then again in 2003, the American media took war to living rooms around the world. In 2019, a global network of netizens took it to every smartphone. Prime time is no longer just the nine o’clock news. Instead, prime time is whenever a ‘social media influencer’ disseminates viral information. Still, the relationship between media, politics, power and war is just as interdependent as ever before. And the current cacophony in our public sphere gives us the perfect opportunity to interrogate what has changed and what hasn’t.
Media has always been complicit in allowing itself to be co-opted by the state. Time and again it has provided outlets for the government’s narrative on foreign policy and war.
In their seminal book ‘Manufacturing Consent,’ Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman argue that “official sources” and beat reporters have always enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. The latter obtains access to strategic leaks and breaking news, while the former can set the agenda with no extra effort.
It is not surprising that we see this dynamic playing out on social media as well.
When individuals possess viewership and influence that are as large, or even larger, than many traditional news platforms, they become natural outlets for government leaks. The medium may have evolved, but the motivations stay the same.
Second, the nature of strategic communications has altered dramatically. In the 20th century, America had an absolute monopoly over media and telecommunications infrastructure. Its society could influence sentiment at a global scale with no competition. They decided how the world perceived the first Iraq war (1990-91). Today, no country, agency or actor enjoys this monopoly. The diffusion of information communication technologies has democratised story-telling. Every individual is the media. A single video, blog or photo can and will alter the course of events.
In times of war, it is essential for the state to respond nimbly and proactively to real time events. It must set the narrative and even stay ahead of the news cycle. There must be consistency in message and meaning across mediums. After the Balakot strikes, it was clear that the Indian government had struggled to achieve this, even as the Pakistani state leveraged the void to relocate its malevolent designs within the mediated halo of ‘statesmanship’.
Third, South Asia now regularly identifies ‘peaceniks’ as the new enemy of the state and the purported masses. Just as communism was a red line for American media over much of the 20th century, advocating peace in the subcontinent appears to be the South Asian red line. In both India and Pakistan, we witness a certain ‘othering’ of those who would propose peaceful options and solutions. Chomsky and Herman write that the concept of “anti-communism” could easily mobilise electorates because “the concept is fuzzy [and] it can be used against anybody” even as the anti-communists can “do and say anything” without oversight.
This basic premise holds true in both India and Pakistan today. And it has only been aggravated by those who would rather collect followers than constrain themselves by considerations of ethics and responsibility.
While peace is certainly not on the horizon, our media establishments and social media warriors have made it a veritable crime to even consider the prospect of peace.
Fourth, in the age of social media, tailored messaging is ineffective. The success of Hollywood, for example, was also tied to its ability to employ sophisticated communications to engage large constituencies. In other words, its stories enjoyed a large appeal. Effective messaging must share this virtue—it must be polysemic.
Too often, politicians tend to appeal to their narrow electorates in pursuit of political power. Of course, anyone who believes that this is not a natural consequence of democratic politics is naïve. Nevertheless, Indian governments and political actors (including those in the opposition) must learn how to communicate both universally and to their base. If these are at odds with each other, especially during conflict, it is the national brand and interest that is compromised most. Strategic communications is an evolving arena and many in India would do well to go back to school to appreciate its new intricacies.
Finally, in wartime, silence is not an option – but neither is bluster. It was disappointing, for example, to see multiple actors embedding their own messages and meanings in India’s predictably mundane official press briefing(s). Ambiguous messages will naturally lend themselves to speculation and manipulation. Clarity and uniformity must be the defining feature of conflict communications. Blank spaces must be taboo as eyes in the sky and cell-phone cameras will reveal all.
Amidst all the commissions and reports that will dissect the strategic implications of Balakot, it is crucial that sufficient attention also be paid to the question of narratives and information flows. In ‘Power: A Radical View’, Steven Lukes argues that the most “insidious use of power” is to “prevent people … from having grievances by shaping their perceptions, cognitions, and preferences in such a way that they accept their role in the existing order of things.” One wonders if the cumulative effect of ineffective political and government communications, thunderous media anchors and shrill social media influencers is not just this. Are we, as a society, capable of being clear-headed about the risks and opportunities that lie with our western neighbour? Or are we constrained by the narratives of our own making without even knowing it?
There are, therefore, some important questions that require resolution. How should the government preserve its reliability and authenticity in the information age? How should social media platforms react to rapidly evolving geopolitical events? What ethics and responsibilities must the media abide by in times of conflict? And, perhaps most importantly, what is the role of the new media: the individual who now wields such influence and power? The answers will be crucial to our maturing as a democracy.