Dealing with 'radically networked societies'

Steep hierarchical structures like those of the government departments, security forces etc will increasingly find it difficult to respond to radically networked societies and they need to devise new ways.

The recent uploading of videos by two soldiers of the army and one each from the Border Security Force (BSF) and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), that went viral on the Internet, have certainly stirred the proverbial hornet’s nest.

While addressing the troops on January 15 Army Day parade in Delhi, Army Chief General Bipin Rawat warned of action against the personnel resorting to the use of social media to air their grievances instead of seeking redressal through proper channels. 

A senior Indian Police Service officer has asserted that uniformed services cannot be run like a mohalla sabha.  Although these warnings are in the right spirit, they are typical Pavlovian responses of highly structured organisations to fundamental issue of Radically Networked Societies (RNS).

The RNS has been defined as a web of hyper connected individuals, possessing an identity (imagined or real), and motivated by a common immediate cause. They further add that the defining feature of RNS is its scale of operation—wide reach and its ability to evade conventional national security measures.

The social media in the form of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp etc has given rise to the RNS. The most recent manifestation of this phenomenon was the military coup in Turkey in July 2016 in which President Erdogan uploaded his video through face time urging his supporters that he was still in control. The video went viral and effectively averted a takeover by the military.

In July 2016, the Indian Army came out with its social media policy. The instructions came out with a laundry list of do’s and don’ts for the armed forces personnel. Going by the list, the soldiers who uploaded the videos have certainly transgressed on what is correct (no photos in official uniform) and are certain to face disciplinary action.

But it would be very naïve on part of the establishment to dismiss them as rants of individuals and ‘set them as example’ for others to desist such action in future. The fact that these soldiers chose to speak out in spite being aware of the rules demonstrates that something is fundamentally amiss.

Reportedly, one of the responses online by an anonymous military officer (which had more than 31,000 views) dismisses the BSF soldier as basically having a patchy record and having numerous Pakistani friends. But again, it is shooting the messenger rather than think of an effective response strategy.

Interestingly, even the most advanced United States military did not have a social media policy till 2009. In 2014, the US army punished a soldier guilty of misdemeanour of not saluting the flag during a ceremony and then posting the selfie on Instagram.

In a similar vein, the army chief is right in asserting that action could be taken as it could affect the morale of the troops engaged in operations. He has set up a redressal mechanism wherein any soldier could post his grievance anonymously directly to the army headquarters.

Freedom of speech

The armed forces by nature are strictly hierarchical and donning the uniform means complete abrogation of fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression. Complaints by the personnel can be one sided and emotionally driven. But when it is a question of injustice (perceived or genuine) in the form of poor quality food or mistreatment by superiors, it takes an altogether different hue.

The army and the security forces are not new to this form of conflict. In April 2016, flash mobs gathered in Handwara, Kashmir to protest against the alleged rape of a local girl by a soldier (the girl later retracted her statement). The protests materialised due to messages spread in WhatsApp groups.

This was one of the causes in dismantling of bunkers by the army. The difference between then and now is that the current one is an internal issue that found army leadership grappling to find answers.

Responding to RNS will always have a trade-off between liberty and national security and is essentially an incremental tail chase by the policymakers.  Even the advanced nations are trying to come to grips with this. There are no easy answers to this puzzle.

(The writer is Research Fellow & Faculty (Geostrategy Programme), Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru)

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