[op-ed snap] A parallel chessboard

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Mains Paper 2: IR | Important International institutions, agencies & fora, their structure, mandate

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Not Much

Mains level: Digital Media and nuclear deterence


NEWS

CONTEXT

Digital media creates an alternative chessboard, out of sight of the main political protagonists. The players on this other board are non-state micro-actors — who are not in the command-and-control chain leading to the nuclear buttons.Why we may need a new theory of nuclear deterrence for a post-digital age.

Recent Conflict and nuclear deterrence

  • The latest conflagration across the India-Pakistan border, triggered by the February 14 suicide bombing attack in Pulwama, has set a new watermark for the two nuclear-armed neighbours.
  • The classic deterrence logic from nuclear game theory would suggest that the present state is the best solution to a region in a state of perpetual conflict:
  • Either side has the ability to annihilate the other — and that awareness deters any meaningful escalation of hostility and flips both sides back to a peaceful equilibrium.
  • In the nuclear deterrence community, there is an idea called the stability-instability paradox:
  • The overhanging threat of nuclear retaliation offers an insurance policy, which gives rise to moral hazard, a common problem in the insurance business.
  • The safety net of insurance creates incentives for low-level risky behaviour. This helps explain a tendency towards proxy wars on the ground or dogfights in the air of the kind we witnessed recently.

Impact of digitalisation

  • Digital media creates an alternative chessboard, out of sight of the main political protagonists
  • Technology permits them to broadcast messages, and push the pieces on the parallel board and at some point their configuration of pieces infiltrates action on the main chessboard, because the protagonists being political entities must respond to the moods of their constituencies, the micro-actors.
  • The magic of digital media is that it often introduces change through imperceptible moves, which then gather force over powerful transmission mechanisms and hop across different media, from television to Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook.
  • False and fiery narratives, in particular, have a way of being buoyed by the logic of digital transmission.
  • They get elevated and travel further, partly because people are motivated to send more extreme messages and the digital media companies profit from more eyeballs — and more advertising exposure — on these messages.

Worsening the situation

  • To be sure, the digital medium is a powerful force not just as a transmitter of narratives or as an organiser of hashtag tribes; it is also a force to be reckoned with as a cyber weapon.
  • Pulwama, unsurprisingly, also led to a spike in cyber-attacks.
  • The official website of Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was hacked and defaced as was the website of Union Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat.
  • This follows a rather long tradition of cyber tit-for-tat between India and Pakistan, that pre-dates WhatsApp.
  • As far back as 1998, Pakistani hackers had made their way into India’s Atomic Research Centre. Since then the attacks have only grown in volume and frequency.
  • Over the years, targets have ranged from embassies to government ministries to a myriad others, including military sites, universities, airports and e-banking systems.
  • The tools have included a mix of website defacement, spear phishing and malware.
  • Such malware can activate webcams, steal data and take screenshots of victims’ computers. They are not just annoyances, they can compromise national security assets and even prevent essential systems from operating.
  • Digital attacks can be sophisticated enough to directly interfere with nuclear systems. Consider the case of Stuxnet, a highly sophisticated worm that infects computers and targets centrifuges for producing enriched uranium for nuclear reactors.
  • In other words, there are many ways to disrupt the clean calculus of nuclear deterrence in the digital age. Inadvertent nuclear launches could be triggered by reliance on false information and corrupted data or the failure of a major piece of infrastructure.

Conclusion

It is time that the players on the main chessboard, the policymakers on both sides of the Indo-Pak border, and the digital platform companies, Facebook, WhatsApp, Google and Twitter, that are enabling that other chessboard, wake up to a new crisis around the corner. This one could have implications even more serious than the ones about election misinformation or privacy breaches that dominated the headlines in the last year. It is hard enough playing chess on a single chessboard.

 

 

 

 

 

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