When Thousand Cuts Approach Meets the Acupuncture Strategy

What happens when society faces a dilemma on who and what to trust? In a situation where an often blurred line separates reality and propaganda, society is both the weapon and the victim.

Today, social media has become the go-to platform for getting updated with national and international developments. But while scrolling through apps like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, one often does not know the source of the information or the intention behind it.

In a well-noted speech, India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, remarked that civil society is the new frontier of warfare and that in today’s age of information revolution, the ‘will of the nation’ is under attack. As he defined it, the will of the nation is moulded by the common people, their thinking, their sense of well-being, and their perception of their governments.

More recently, speaking at a seminar on July 18, India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, reflected upon this concern yet again. He underlined that national defence is no longer confined to borders but has expanded towards cyberspace and economic and social spheres. Drawing attention to constant attacks on India through disinformation and misinformation campaigns, he highlighted the cruciality of thwarting these attempts from both within India and abroad.

The extent of these issues and their effects are often underestimated. The ongoing Russia-Ukraine war shows how future warfare will occur in a heavily ‘informationized’ environment. Both sides have tried to create an information environment where losses are downplayed and wins are exponentially magnified. Their allies from around the globe have aided their effort.

The manipulation of reality in wartime and in the lead-up to the war itself is not new. Throughout the previous century, the world has witnessed propaganda through posters, newspapers, pamphlets, and radio channels. Today, this has shifted to the much more anonymous, faster, and less costly cyber domain. 

The question is whether India is in a war or proceeding towards a war. The answer is both.

Today, India is facing two vile adversaries in this domain. India is being attacked not only at the domestic level but at the international level as well. A Pakistan-China nexus is trying to sow doubts in Indian society regarding its governance systems and defence capabilities. There have been reports of coordinated attacks that tarnish India’s image on the global pedestal by creating fake narratives whenever the nation undergoes sensitive situations and disruptive events.

China’s cyberwarfare capabilities are now well-known across the world. Several sustained cyber espionage campaigns related to Chinese-origin groups have come to light in recent years. These groups have worked towards endowing political, economic, and strategic benefits to the Communist Party of China. For example, when New Delhi banned China-made apps over privacy concerns, India observed hacking campaigns on government agencies, which were later revealed in several reports to be led by Chinese groups. Cyber espionage campaigns have also been noted in India’s critical infrastructure sectors like energy and telecom.

Similarly, groups from Pakistan have intruded into India’s cyberspace with phishing and espionage activities. In recent months, dozens of Pakistani-origin YouTube accounts were banned, which disseminated exploitative and fake narratives to foment unrest in India.

In a report by cybersecurity firm Kaspersky this year, it was reflected that India’s cyber threats are growing, primarily due to the penetrating attacks from Pakistan and China.

Pakistan has followed the strategy of ‘bleeding India through a thousand cuts’ for many decades. This strategy depends on waging a covert war against India by invoking insurgency at multiple locations. However, as cyberspace is borderless, the information warfare strategy is being deployed without the need for cross-border infiltration.

 China has followed a similar strategy against its adversaries. China’s ‘acupuncture strategy’ depends on asymmetrical warfare and aims to paralyse the enemy by attacking it at multiple weak points. In information warfare, the needles seek India’s strategic issues like government agencies and critical infrastructure, but most importantly, the societal perspective.

 Today, these two strategies are being used in conjunction against India. This ‘Cuts and Puncture’ strategy relies on manipulating the psyche of the Indian society by sowing doubts through fake narratives.

Pakistan Army’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) wing, which handles information warfare, is said to be leading the thousand cuts mission in the cyber domain. Over the years, it has cultivated several thousand assets through propaganda training. On the other hand, China has multiple units dedicated to this objective, targeting different countries and sectors.

The cuts and puncture approach is much more than a social media propaganda campaign or a cyber espionage mission. At its core, it seeks to destabilise the fundamental functioning of the Indian society at the social, political, economic, and cultural levels. It exploits the community’s underlying impatience, unawareness, and fears and magnifies them to satisfy nefarious ambitions. Consequently, it invokes hasty actions based on emotions and insecurities, forcing the victim to ignore the necessity of verifying their perceptions.

It is often argued that India should develop cyber offensive capabilities to counter information warfare and respond in the same language. However, while cyber offensive and defensive abilities can be established, it is also upon the Indian society to take the onus for raising awareness for identifying, flagging, and neutralising the mechanisms of information warfare which are seeking to engulf India today.

Divyanshu Jindal
Divyanshu Jindal
Divyanshu Jindal is a Researcher on Geopolitics & Tech at NatStrat, India.