To strengthen its position in the Indo-Pacific, Washington, DC has been eyeing increased collaboration with India.
This is evidenced by United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s March 2021 meetings with officials in New Delhi, along with the Quad leaders’ summit in the same month, where all parties involved expressed their determination to promote a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, collaborate on pandemic response, and expand security cooperation.
Austin said following his meetings, “...it's clear that the importance of this partnership, and its impact [on] the international rules-based order will only grow in the years ahead.”
However, there is an additional area where this prospective partnership has room to grow: the countering of fake news, disinformation and broader cybersecurity challenges.
The ‘Big Lie’: Why India & US Should Be Concerned
Both countries have reason for concern: The storming of the US Capitol Building on 6 January 2021, which resulted in five deaths – the worst violence at the building since the British Army sacked Washington in 1814 – followed weeks of unsubstantiated rumours and allegations about the outcome of the 2020 US presidential election. Some political scientists have classified this disinformation as an example of the Big Lie.
India has its own struggles with disinformation: in 2018, rumours spread through WhatsApp about a ‘gang of kidnappers’ in western Maharashtra, culminated in the lynching of five migrant workers.
The Capitol Hill violence did not result in rumours about the election outcome being put to rest, and in fact unfounded allegations about who was responsible for the Capitol melee was circulated. In India, 400 million people now have access to the internet, but publishers and fact-checkers warn that many of them lack the education to evaluate the reliability of the information they receive.
And the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the extent of the problem: an early March poll showed that 30 percent of the American public is either unsure they will receive a vaccine for the virus or sure that they will not.
Some Americans’ belief, stoked by politicians and commentators, about the origins of the virus have translated into increasing hate crimes against those of Asian descent. India has seen similar issues: COVID cases among Muslims in Delhi in April 2020 led to rumours that the minority community was a ‘vector for the disease’ or were ‘intentionally spreading the virus’. These rumours resulted in attacks on Muslims and other forms of discrimination.
The US and India have something else in common: concern over the People’s Republic of China and its technology, especially in an era marked by concern over disinformation and its socio-political consequences.
The Dragon in the Room
China is suspected as being behind the cyberattacks on Mumbai’s electric grid early summer 2020 as well as the recent cyberattack, detected in January 2021, on Microsoft Exchange which originated from the China-based espionage group Hafnium, one that exploited vulnerabilities in the email software, affecting over 30,000 organisations across the US.
Interestingly, the cyberattack on Mumbai’s electric grid occurred right after the Galwan Valley clash between Indian and Chinese troops, leading to speculation that the cyberattack was a response to border conflict. With China upping the ante by using cyber security weapons, India and the US have followed suit by banning or constraining apps of Chinese origin, such as TikTok and PUBG that have long been suspected to be a threat to their national security. And they may threaten to do more than simply cause disruptions and steal information.
Mobile applications such as TikTok have been used as platforms for disinformation campaigns and have risen to prominence and at times, notoriety, during election seasons in democracies around the globe.
Chinese State-funded or supported news outlets such as Global Times and People’s Daily have often parroted the hyper-nationalist tone of the Chinese Communist Party and have used these apps, resorting to the spread of fake news and misinformation, such as insinuating that the United States or Italy were the source of the novel coronavirus.
US-India Security Partnership Should Look Beyond Maritime Sphere
Lea Gabrielle, coordinator of the US State Department’s Global Engagement Center, has noted that, “China has adopted Russian-style disinformation techniques to sow confusion and to try to convince people that COVID didn’t originate in China”.
The US-India partnership, working towards maintaining a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’, should not be limited to the maritime sphere.
In the face of the growing threat of disinformation, as well as the PRC’s willingness to and capacity to spread it, the partnership should be an expansive one that addresses the 21st century challenges arising from the digital world.
In an attempt at combating the scourge of fake news, misinformation campaigns and cyber-attacks on democracies of the world, American senators have proposed the Democracy Technology Partnership Act. This bipartisan legislation seeks to establish an inter-agency department within the US State Department to create a partnership among democracies that are in opposition to China, and to set standards and policies that govern the digital realm.
Specifically, the act would, as its sponsors have described, help democratic countries to develop harmonise technology governance regimes, allow for coordination between countries on shared technology strategies, and provide alternatives to other countries at risk of acquiring tech from authoritarian regimes (such as the PRC).
Assuming this legislation passes, India should be an early destination for such cooperation from the US government. Delhi, likewise, should embrace the partnership as the first step in a 1,000-mile journey to protect democracies of the world from cybersecurity threats.
Digital technology is evolving at a breathtaking rate, and strategies to promote cybersecurity and defence against disinformation will have to evolve too.
But a partnership that embraces an expansive definition of “security” means that democracies in the Indo-Pacific don’t have to face these challenges alone.
This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)