The information warfare playing out in India can fuel communal divisions in the country’s domestic politics. And it all started with Modi’s ‘solidarity with Israel’ tweet.
Information has the power to create, shift, or sustain already held beliefs. Beliefs, in turn, influence and determine individual and collective behaviours and are often shaped by the narratives at play. In the ongoing Hamas-Israel war, the battle of narratives could play a crucial role in determining the course of events, including the cessation or continuation of hostilities.
Hamas, the initial instigator in this round of conflict, has ravaged Israel by killing, wounding, taking hostages, and destroying property. Its methods involved breaching the border fence and launching attacks, primarily against civilians and some military targets, often accompanied by rocket fire aimed at cities and towns, including capital Tel Aviv. In response, Israel hit back primarily with air power, triggering a major humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
The bombing of Gaza is now in its third week. Israel continues to kill and wound several thousand innocent civilians and destroy infrastructure, including mosques, hospitals, residential buildings, schools, UN premises, refugee camps, and any asset that it suspects of harbouring armed groups. Simultaneously, Gaza has been deprived of energy, food, water, and healthcare, for which it depended on Israel. Israel has also mobilised its armed forces, including land, maritime, and air power, which are poised to invade Gaza. It has called for the evacuation of the northern part of Gaza.
Information warfare is on
The tragic events in the Gaza-Israel conflict are being beamed on the internet for the rest of the world. The power of images is understandably influencing beliefs, shaping narratives and driving global responses from governments and the public. These narratives are layered upon the backdrop of ongoing geopolitical turbulence, which is, essentially, a power struggle between the US and China that seeks to reshape the existing world order dominated by US-led Western powers. Not surprisingly, the United Nations remains a bystander in efforts to end the violence in the Israel-Gaza war.
There are now two major global hotspots—Ukraine in Eastern Europe and Israel-Palestine in the Middle East. The Gaza-Israel War is deeply rooted in history and carries within it the powerful force of religion, which has forever unleashed the beast in humankind. The spike in global support for the Palestinian cause, especially in the Arab world, is fanned by religious ties rooted in Islam. The ghosts of narratives regarding Islam’s historical confrontations with Christianity and Judaism in the Middle East have inevitably been galvanised.
The recent bombing of the al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza city is emblematic of the ongoing battle of narratives being waged to portray the other as responsible for the loss of hundreds of innocent lives, that too of the injured and refugees fleeing from the scourge of war. It does not matter what the truth is, whether Israel’s version is supported by the US and its allies or the Hamas group was responsible. What matters to the popular imagination is the intrinsically crystallised political, ideological, and cultural disposition that colour their perceptive lenses. For those of the Islamic faith, the Hamas version reinforces their existing beliefs about Israel’s beastliness. For Israel, the US and its partners, it is a Hamas conspiracy driven by the manipulation of social media to garner sympathy and support.
The surge in demonstrations, protests, and violence in the West Bank, several Arab countries, and other parts of the world against Israel reflects the truism that, in the battle of narratives, Hamas has succeeded in distancing the Arab world from Israel and rekindling support for the Palestinian cause, which had been forsaken by their Islamic brethren in the Arab world in recent years. The separate peace-making efforts of the US and China to reconcile Saudi Arabia-Israel and Iran-Saudi Arabia have suffered a major blow. This does not bode well for global stability, even as the war continues to spread and escalate.
Geographically, Israel’s border with Lebanon has seen cross border skirmishes, with reports of Iranian backed Hezbollah seeking to open another front against Israel. Israel has struck international airports in Syrian cities of Damascus and Aleppo, ostensibly to prevent Iran from supplying personnel, arms, and ammunition to Lebanon and Syria. Reports indicate that Iran-backed militias have deployed to southern Lebanon and southwestern Syria. Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has warned of a multi-front war against Israel, and Iranian-backed militias may take preemptive actions. However, Iran continues to signal its unwillingness to enter into a direct war with Israel.
The US has deployed two aircraft carrier groups in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Israel to deter Iran. The Pentagon spokesperson has acknowledged a spate of drone attacks on American bases in Iraq and Syria and stated that an American destroyer in the Red Sea intercepted cruise missiles and drones launched by Iran-supported Houthis in Yemen against Israel.
Challenges for India
US President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Israel signified support for the country but he also cautioned Israel not to repeat the mistakes committed by America after 9/11 when it allowed anger and a desire for revenge to dictate its actions. Yet, Israel continues to wreak havoc in Gaza, which can only result in strengthening the cycle of revenge apart from uniting the West Bank and Gaza. The West Bank could become a third front if Israel launches an invasion there. Given its losses in the information domain, Israel would be able to retain American support due to the US’ internal politics. But reactions of others may differ and may not favour Israel. The question is: what should be India’s reaction?
Initially, India’s stance appeared skewed in favour of Israel when Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted on 10 October following a telephone conversation with his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu: “Deeply shocked by the news of terrorist attacks in Israel. Our thoughts and prayers are with the innocent victims and their families. We stand in solidarity with Israel at this difficult hour.” This reaction pertained only to the terrorist attack on Israel. But some believed that India, under Modi, had prioritised its relationship with Israel at the expense of its traditional support for the Palestinian cause. The contents of the PM’s tweet were somewhat balanced by MEA spokesman Arindam Bagchi on 12 October in reply to a media query. He reaffirmed that India’s longstanding support for the Palestinian cause remains unchanged.
The larger point is that the initial impression has remained in the popular imagination, and for some, India’s initial position was anchored in the ruling BJP’s stance against Islam—a fact that has been on display on Indian social media platforms. An article in Al Jazeera reveals that after the Hamas attack on 7 October, numerous right-leaning accounts in India spread Islamophobic disinformation. The article quotes the editor of the Indian non-profit fact-checking website, AltNews: “With India now exporting its disinformation actors in the Indian mainstream media and on social media in support of Israel, hopefully the world will now realise how the Indian right-wing has made India the disinformation capital of the world.” These developments must be viewed as part of the information warfare playing out, which fuels communal divisions in India’s domestic politics.
The Israel-Hamas conflict is likely to add to the challenges India faces in navigating the turbulent geopolitical times. For starters, the proposed India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) seems dead in the surrounding waters. It is also likely that the sails of some terrorist groups adversarial to India will be boosted by the winds of geopolitical emotions generated by the Hamas-Israel war. These could find expression in Kashmir and/or in carrying out terrorist attacks on sensitive targets, especially those with religious significance.
India must prepare for harder times, as the information domain gains prominence and AI-driven technology makes it nearly impossible to discern fact from fiction. Information, as the currency of power, is being wielded to exert greater control over populations in autocracies. In democracies, the enhancement in exposure and the rapid flow of information provides ample room for radicalisation, especially when issues carry religious undertones.
It is becoming increasingly feasible to manipulate beliefs and trick a large number of people for longer periods of time. The battle of narratives is finding a greater degree of success through disinformation, deceit, deception, and propaganda, injecting hate and hostility into an increasingly polarised world. The war clouds are darkening.