Facebook and fifth generation warfare

Late last year Major General Asif Ghafoor, Director General, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), created quite a stir by talking about the growth of “fifth generation warfare” and its implications for the future of journalism.

In a press conference last December, he stressed that the “media has a front line role in 5th generation warfare…the power which the media has, no other state institution at this time has that sort of power because there is fifth generation warfare and hybrid war. Your target through perceptions and narrative is to reach the youth”.

While much debate remains over the exact definition of “fifth generation warfare” as conceptualised by the Major General, for critics it was further evidence that the Pakistani military considers the media to be a potential tool for propaganda rather than a source of independent information that should hold the powerful to account. For years, many have alleged that elements associated with the Pakistani military engage in disseminating information online through multiple networks of fake accounts as a means of shaping online discourse.

Yesterday, Facebook entered this conversation in dramatic fashion. A news release stated that it had removed 103 pages, groups and accounts for “engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior on Facebook and Instagram as part of a network that originated in Pakistan”. According to Facebook, these pages and groups were “linked to employees of the ISPR (Inter-Service Public Relations) of the Pakistani military”.

It is pertinent to note here that Facebook reached this conclusion through its own internal security mechanism, and neither Soch nor any other media organisation has been able to independently verify the evidence or process through which Facebook made this determination.

A Facebook explainer from December 2018 on how they determine “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” is embedded below.

Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior Explained

Posted by Facebook on Tuesday, 4 December 2018

According to Facebook, these accounts were not removed on the basis of their content. The content they were sharing was mostly run-of-the-mill political commentary with a slight pro-Pakistan bias. Rather, it was because the people behind the accounts tried to actively hide their identities and show themselves as someone other than who they really are.

For example, one of the pages suspended was titled “Kashmir for Kashmiris”, and had posted about the struggle of Kashmiris in Indian-administered Kashmir. The page and post implied that it was content created by an indigenous Kashmiri to highlight India’s oppression and the Kashmiri right to self-determination. Had that been the case, there would have probably been nothing wrong with the post. Instead, according to Facebook, it was content created by ISPR employees, ostensibly for political point scoring against India, and hence it was taken down.

A post from the page “Kashmir for Kashmiris” that was removed by Facebook. Source: Facebook

Similarly, another page removed was titled “PakistaN Army — the BEST” and shared posts highlighting the Indian Army’s perceived failures. Again, the page implies that it is an organic fan page for the Pakistani Army created by an ordinary Pakistani proud of his/her armed forces. Pages such as these are common on Pakistani social media, and ordinarily there would be nothing unusual about them, but in this case Facebook alleged that it was another fake account run by ISPR employees.

A sample post from another page removed by Facebook. Source: Facebook

To analogise, it would be perfectly acceptable if Head n Shoulders created and promoted their page. But it would be weird, to say the least, if they instead created an account titled “HeaD n ShouldErs — the BEST” that shared posts about rivals Clear Shampoo being an “embarrassment” and “consistent failure”.

In total, 24 Pages, 57 Facebook accounts, 7 Groups and 15 Instagram accounts were removed by Facebook in Pakistan. All combined, these accounts had 2.8 million followers and had spent $1,100 in ads on Facebook between the years 2015–2018.

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BJP and INC Also Guilty?

The Facebook investigation found that “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” was not a problem in Pakistan alone. In India, elements of both the major parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC), were alleged to be involved in this misconduct. Again it was not necessarily the content that was objectionable — sample posts from the accounts taken down show them sharing standard patriotic content, pro-BJP/INC messages, and highlights of misconduct by their opponents. Rather, they were banned because they attempted to appear as autonomous pages independent of each other when in fact, according to Facebook, they were constructing a narrative in coordination with each other.

The money spent by these accounts was also substantially larger than what had been spent in Pakistan. 687 pro-INC accounts were removed, but not before they had spent $39,000 on ads between the years 2014–19. Meanwhile only 15 pro-BJP accounts were removed, but together they had spent a whopping $70,000 in ads over the same time period.

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The concept of fifth generation warfare, as popularised by Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, is unique. There are few mentions of it online, barring the wall-to-wall coverage it has received in Pakistani media over the last year. Even the few articles that do exist on the topic diverge on what exactly the term “fifth generation warfare” implies. It has been used to variously describe anarchist insurgencies and the utilisation of data to make precision bombs.

Regardless of the term’s actual definition, the underlying message behind Maj Gen Ghafoor’s statement is not a novel one. Winning hearts and minds has now become arguably more important than prevailing on the battlefield. And in the social media era, it is no secret that online messaging plays a major role in shaping narratives. What is concerning is that if Facebook’s findings are correct, then rather than attempting to build narratives through transparent actions, South Asian politicians and generals are instead relying on a complex web of fake accounts and their associated groups and pages to make their support look organic. By deliberately seeking to mislead the public, such techniques undermine faith in our democratic institutions. It is advisable that national institutions such as the Pakistan Army focus on winning hearts and minds through accountability, not paid promotions.

Similarly, it is also vital that Facebook reveal the process behind its investigation. Its statement has raised serious allegations against some of the most popular and powerful institutions in South Asia, and as such it should follow journalistic norms of publicly revealing its findings so that other media outlets can verify and cross-examine them. Anything less than that would be giving Facebook, a behemoth in itself, blanket authority to make allegations against any group without having to provide proof — a concerning precedent to set for a private American company that has zero external checks and balances.

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