The media debacle that unfolded during the last couple of weeks is not unique to Pakistan; it has already rocked the West. Rupert Murdoch and his media empire are under the gun in UK for the phone hacking scandal and reporting practices. During the second Iraq war, the credibility of the American media was questioned for not asking the right questions. Then came the WikiLeaks phenomena, the repercussions of which are still being felt. As the reputation of mainstream media got hit, alternative sources of information gained in status.
The connection between powerful individuals and media is nothing new. International actors spent huge sums to protect their image and influence the messages that reflect on them. The bottom line is, in the information age, media has become a tactical and strategic weapon. It is used to shape perceptions that ultimately are instrumental in developing pubic opinion. This is one of the key reasons why the battle for the control of cyber space is heating up.
The Advent Of Social Media
What constitutes media has changed over times as well, and it’s no longer just the print and the traditional electronic media. Modern communication technologies and social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been added to the list and are playing a key role in the Arab transformation.
For instance, in the Arab awakening, WikiLeaks acted as a catalyst in igniting the resentment and discontent that existed within the Arab society. The leaked documents reinforced the perceptions widely held by the public about their duplicitous rulers and elite. On the other hand, with tools like Facebook and Twitter, people were able to vent their anger, organize and maintain the much-needed momentum, as seen in Tahrir Square. They empowered the otherwise powerless citizens of these countries to become voluntary reporters and spies in this modern day information warfare. The vitality of social media has increased to such an extent that UN wants to classify access to the Internet as a basic human right.
However, these modern tools have not been able to generate leadership to take charge of the movement it has inspired. Thus, while the social media has had a galvanizing influence and in providing the initial momentum, it has a dangerous side effect of not preparing people for the day after. Despite these limitations, the social media tools appeared to be tremendously successful in bringing about regime change but constitute a threat to the forces of status quo. Many Arab regimes have now imposed strict control over these mediums while UN wants to classify access to Internet as a basic human right.
Cyber Warfare And Cyber Security
With increasing dependence on Internet, protecting the infrastructure and networks that facilitates these information-based transactions to occur in the cyber space, has emerged as the most important arena of the future warfare. The US and the West are spending big bucks towards beefing up cyber security, to prevent not only the extremists from exploiting the vulnerabilities, but to also protect against industrial espionage from countries like China.
In June 2011, Defense Secretary Panetta had commented, “The next Pearl Harbor we confront could very well be a cyber attack that cripples our power systems, our grid, our security systems, our financial systems, our governmental systems.” With cyber attacks becoming increasingly frequent against government networks, last year President Barack Obama approved guidelines that determine the parameters of the military response against the perpetrators of a cyber attack or espionage. According to this strategy, US will consider the use of conventional weapons.
Meanwhile, Li Shuiseng, a researcher at the leading military science academy of the People’s Liberation Army, stated in an interview at the time the new strategy was “fundamentally an attempt of the US to maintain its unparalleled global military superiority.
“The allegations by the analysts came after Google accused Chinese officials of attempting to hack Google email accounts relating to US officials, government offices, politicians, journalists and activists – a claim denied by China. Instead, Beijing asserts that America is using online tactics to bring about regime change in Arab nations and claims it has evidence that the cyber assaults originated in the US.
Some recent examples of cyber warfare have come in the form of ‘Stuxnet’ and ‘Flame’ viruses that were deployed by US and Israel against Iran. While Stuxnet impeded Iran’s progress towards acquiring nuclear capability, Flame reportedly was used to map and monitor Iran’s computer networks. Flame virus has an extraordinary data snatching capability and can eavesdrop on unsuspecting computer users by manipulating its audio system and listen to office conversations and Skype calls.
One can discern the following patterns from the above discussion. With the control of local governments, international actors and powerful individuals on the mainstream media, it is increasingly seen as preserving the status quo.
Consider this report that indicates nearly one third of Afghanistan’s media is either backed by Iran financially or through providing content. Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security had earlier alleged Iran was funding weekly Ensaf, as well as Tamadon and Noor TV channels. It was further suspected that Iran might also have Afghan MPs on it pay roll, with 40 of the 249 members receiving funding from Iran. “What Iran wants, what they are striving at, is a power base in Afghanistan that can counter American influence,” said a senior government official.
On the other hand, social media is supporting the cause of those seeking change. In this atmosphere, alternative sources are increasingly bringing out the shocking truth. And, as they do, it further erodes trust in the traditional sources of news and information. Meanwhile, the reporting business itself is changing when Twitter provides 24 hours coverage of the raw ground reality in different languages, to whom it may concern. While the forces of change may want to keep the Internet switch on, the forces of status quo will like to have the ability to turn it off.
In this context, the Mediagate in Pakistan is just a tip of the iceberg. The global trends that are impacting the information and cyber warfare will ultimately have an impact in Pakistan as well. The struggle for access to information and knowledge, and being able to control and influence it, continues on like never before.