Information Warfare: Soldiers And Smartphones

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July 5, 2021: China recently (June) made it illegal to defame or insult military personnel. China never needed such a law before because it has been a communist police state since 1949. Back then it meant all media was controlled by the state and media criticism of the military was virtually impossible. The Internet changed all that and the widespread availability of smartphones over the last decade have meant most military personnel worldwide now have one because it has become the most common way to access the Internet and the multitude of entertainment and communications services found there. This was especially true of social media like Facebook, Twitter and dozens more. Even police states found Internet-based communications impossible to censor or restrict. The military also had legitimate concerns about troops revealing military technology, plans and operations to the world and those currently at war with you.

The new Chinese laws are there mainly for Internet-based discussion of what is going on in the Chinese military, especially anything the government does not want discussed. The specific bit of bad news that triggered the creation of the new law was a popular Chinese blogger discussing what was really going on with Chinese troops on the India border and the official reports of troops wounded or killed being much higher than reported. Troops know better than to discuss such matters openly on the Internet.

China spends billions of dollars a year and employs over a million full and part-time personnel to censor what is said on the Chinese Internet. While this “Great Firewall Of China” is largely successful, it is seen as a challenge for many Chinese and that means the truth does get through via the Internet. It just takes longer in China. To deal with that China can now freely prosecute popular bloggers or social media commenters who stray from the party line.

Passing laws to try and deal with military activities showing up on the Internet is a problem that is two decades old. The first cell phones with cameras appeared in 2000. About the same time text messaging became widely available on cell phones. The first smartphones began appearing after 2005 and the iPhone design was so well thought out and effective that smartphones soon became the only cell phone anyone wanted, especially the young men who accounted for most of the personnel in the military. For the last decade the popularity of these smartphones and social media have become a headache for military commanders everywhere. Even Islamic terror groups have a problem with this because most of their personnel are young men who find smart phones irresistible. This was and still is a major security vulnerability for Islamic terror groups.

Even democracies have problems with this, especially those democracies like Pakistan, where the military has more control over the media than most Pakistanis want. In April 2021 the Pakistani parliament approved a law that made it a crime to criticize the Pakistani military. Maximum punishment is two years in prison and fines of up to $3,300. There was a lot of opposition to the new law, but the military now controls most members of parliament as well as the current prime minister and the proposal became law. This law was mainly aimed at Internet-based reporters, especially the ones operating outside Pakistan. With a law that criminalizes the comments of these expatriate Pakistani critics, the government has more leverage in prosecuting or at least intimidating Pakistanis who report from outside Pakistan.

Democracies that get involved in unpopular, with their own citizens, wars are also tempted to restrict troop use of smartphones, or at least try to. Russia went through this in 2014 when the popular strongman elected in 2000 was on his way to becoming president-for-life. That sort of thing usually involves inventing foreign enemies and engaging in foreign wars. By 2015 Russian troops were operating in Ukraine and Syria and that was very unpopular with most Russians if any conscripts were killed. Unable to control the flow of bad news via the Internet, Russia simply stopped sending conscripts to these war zones and relied on more expensive veteran soldiers, often special operations troops or, ultimately, even more expensive military contractors.

Every nation had a slightly, or considerably different “cell phones for soldiers” problem and policies to try and deal with it. Israel has gone through many changes since smartphones first appeared. Not just cell phones, but also the use of social networks. Back in 2010, Israel prohibited active-duty troops from even using social networking sites like Facebook. This included access via PCs or smartphones. This was to prevent information on current or planned operations getting to terrorists. By 2020 these leaks had already occurred several times. As a result of that, one Israeli soldier was court-martialed (and spent ten days in jail) for reporting an upcoming raid on his Facebook page. The soldier had casually mentioned that his unit was going to conduct a raid in the West Bank, to arrest some Palestinians believed planning a terrorist attack on Israel. Another soldier who saw the Facebook posting alerted the army, and the raid was called off.

For a long time, the Israelis felt they couldn't ban troops from using social networking sites, mainly because most of them are reservists (and former conscripts) called up for a short period of active duty. Instead, the army just kept reminding everyone that only they can avoid deadly accidents on the information highway. When this did not work a total ban for troops, while on duty, was attempted. That didn’t work either. One problem was that for some people social networks like Facebook are an addiction that is not easily overcome.

The Israeli army tried constant reminders to soldiers to think twice before they post any military related items on the Internet. To that end, the military released information about soldiers who got convicted, emphasizing the punishment angle. Just another reminder for the troops. But since 2010 the Israelis have also come to realize that cell phones can be very useful in combat. The Americans were demonstrating this in Iraq and Afghanistan. That resulted in local commanders being given a lot of discretion on what the cell phone rules were for their troops. That led to different rules for different units and the debate rages on. South Korean troops ultimately benefited from the Israeli experience when South Korean leaders paid attention to it and adapted Israeli rules to work, it is hoped, in South Korea.


 


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