Consider the following image: the Mazar-e-Quaid stands tall against a clear Karachi sky, overlooking a curious set of events. An airborne motorbike with wings, carries a bearded, green-turbaned rider into battle against an F-16, while a fleet of fighter jets hover in the near background. Below, seemingly oblivious to this scene of critical warfare, a military uniform-clad Amir Liaquat Hussain — former Minister for Religion Affairs, current Member of the Parliament, ever disputed doctor — strikes a sensuous pose against a public dustbin.
This image was shared on Twitter, to much viral fame, alongside the caption:
“BREAKING NEWS: WE HAVE VISUALS COMING IN FROM KARACHI SHOWING THAT CITIZENS HAVE NOW JOINED THE CIVIL WAR AND ARE FIGHTING PAK AIR FORCE.”
Now consider the news: “Heavy firefight between Pak Army and Sindh Police is going on in Gulshan e Bagh area of #Karachi.” That is, an armed conflict is openly underway between two legs of Pakistan’s security forces in an area named “Garden of Garden.”
While both these news snippets are bound to invoke a reader’s ridicule, only one was shared in jest. The second, unfortunately, depicts the quality of state propaganda espoused, in all seriousness, by Indian internet users against Pakistan.
The “Karachi civil war”
On October 21, Indian social media went abuzz with talks of a “civil war in Karachi,” with fake news and doctored images making rounds of the internet, alongside helpful boosts by well-established news channels and Twitter-verified personalities. Multiple news headlines, like the one reproduced above, painted exaggerated images of warfare to gain online traction, and were cited as fact by “authentic” Indian commentators on social as well as mainstream media.
Platforms amplifying such news included Zee News, Times Now, India Today, India.com and CNN News18—a partnership between the American Warner Media, which owns CNN, and the Indian Network 18. Such legitimate news channels also cited a page called The International Herald, which, as reported by BBC, is registered in the name of a defunct company, and is followed by prominent members of the ruling Indian Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The actual news such fabrications found root in was considerably tamer, if controversial still. The arrest of retired Captain Muhammad Safdar, husband of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) Vice President Maryam Nawaz, from his hotel room the night prior to an opposition rally Karachi in October, following the kidnapping of the Inspector General Sindh Police by “overzealous” members of the Sindh Rangers, confronted Pakistan with an embarrassingly public conflict between the military and the police. While the crisis gripped the public consciousness in Pakistan—inviting heavy debates, conspiracies, and confrontations—the situation was a political talking point at best. However, it was enough to get the dice rolling for Indian propaganda.
Subsequently, many Pakistani politicians condemned the disinformation campaign by Indian media.
Pakistan Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zahid Hafeez Chaudri, at a news briefing the next day, acknowledged the events as a “malicious propaganda campaign” that was “planting baseless stories about Pakistan.”
“Rather than reporting on the humanitarian crisis in [Kashmir] the Indian media chooses to spread fake and sensationalist news about Pakistan to detract from core issues,” he said.
On October 22, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) released an official statement announcing it had “approached Twitter administration to immediately sensitize its moderation teams and ensure that the platform is not used as a propaganda tool for spreading fake information.”
No news of any follow-up by the social media giant has so far been made public.
Whilst this “Civil War in Karachi” incident—as it came to be called online—spawned a deluge of humorous responses in Pakistan, such as the satirical Tweet described earlier, it alludes to a sobering pattern of such propaganda. The October incident was neither the first, nor the last ploy to conjure up a battle in the fields of Indo-Pak’s social media.
The Balakot airstrike
Early 2019 was witness to two nations at the brink of yet another war, but this time with added arsenal: social media. On February 26, India launched an airstrike in Balakot, a village in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, nearing its border with Pakistani administered Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK). The bombs hit an empty area of land, causing harm only to some vegetation, as claimed by Pakistan and evidenced in media reportage. India, however, claimed to have “killed many militants” and achieved its objectives.
Soon after, the mainstream media of both countries clamoured to refute each other’s claims while spectating audiences took the battle to social media on their respective nation’s behalf. Indian media, in particular, propagated that “200 to 300” casualties had resulted from the airstrike—a claim that was amplified by Indian citizens over Twitter. In fact, the false claims spread so rapidly that representatives of the Indian Air Force (IAF) also negated the numbers, choosing to not specify the damage.
However, Indian claims of the damage caused by the “surgical strike” were unanimously refuted by fact-checkers on both sides of the border, as well as international media. A Pakistani local at the targeted area told Reuters: “No one died. Only some pine trees died, they were cut down. A crow also died.”
ALT News, an Indian organization dedicated to fact-checking, reported on Indian disinformation, including fake videos of the airstrike, and misreporting by mainstream media channels like Republic TV and Zee News—which presented clips of a promotional video by IAF as “proof” of the airstrike. Such reports were widely shared on Twitter, and assigned legitimacy to false narratives online.
Pakistan’s hashtag warfare
While the disinformation coming out of India had organizational backing, Pakistani internet users took it as a personal challenge to counter the enemy—not only through fact-checking, but by employing the opposition’s own tactics. A hashtag called #IndiaAgainstTreePlantation began trending on Twitter in Pakistan the day of the Balakot incident to mock the Indian attack that only destroyed “four trees.”
Originated by Farhan Virk, an avid social media personality at the time—known for lending the favours of his vast following to members of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government—the hashtag was coined to fight back against Indian online propaganda through satire. In an Al-Jazeera documentary featuring Virk, he is seen launching the tag from the comfort of his home, while amplifying traffic by attaching false information alongside the hashtag.
Tweeting to his followers, he informed them of the existence of “two places named Balakot,” with India lying about the one it had targeted. He attributed the justification for such disinformation to the “ideology of nationalism.”
“To protect our national interest, if you say something that is not true, but it influences the people in a positive way—I don’t consider that propaganda,” he declared.
However, instances of trolling—which Virk prides himself on being formerly involved in—and influencing by private, patriotic citizens of any country differ vastly from organized, state-endorsed propaganda with material effects on a given population.
Massive Indian disinformation networks
In 2019, researchers at EU DisinfoLab—a European organization working to uncover disinformation campaigns targeting the European Union—unearthed a network of fake media outlets, think tanks and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) serving Indian interests. These included at least 265 fake websites operating in over 65 countries to generate anti-Pakistan news.
The research discovered that EP Today, a Brussels-based self-proclaimed publication of the European Parliament, frequently published “articles and op-eds related to minorities in Pakistan as well as other India-related matters,” and was owned by Indian stakeholders related to the Delhi-based Srivastava Group.
Other actors at the centre of the network included the Times of Geneva, a fake publication that interviewed real politicians to build its legitimacy. Multiple inauthentic news websites, some named after old defunct publications, cross-referenced each other to sustain a network of disinformation. The dubious activities of these websites were also highlighted in a Reddit thread earlier that year.
Most of these publications had an active Twitter presence, further widening the audience for fake propaganda.
Multiple inauthentic news websites, some named after old defunct publications, cross-referenced each other to sustain a network of disinformation.
Annam Lodhi, a Pakistani data journalist who reported on this network, identified the damage of such propaganda as debilitating. “We have seen how this affects Pakistan’s stand on the global stage, especially regarding advocacy. Public opinions are altered due to fake news,” she told The Correspondent.
“Propagandist networks are stronger than any layperson online,” Lodhi added. “They contribute to a further deteriorating image of Pakistan, with foreign organizations believing these stories to be true.”
Following the 2019 reveal, the exposed publications ceased operations. However, an updated 2020 report by the EU DisinfoLab uncovered an even greater Indian conspiracy.
On December 9, 2020, the EU DisinfoLab released a report titled “Indian Chronicles: deep dive into a 15-year operation targeting the EU and UN to serve Indian interests.” A follow-up to the previous year’s report, the investigation uncovered an Indian disinformation network owned by the Srivastava Group spanning at least 750 fake media outlets, covering 119 countries and 550 registered domain names.
“This network is active in Brussels and Geneva in producing and amplifying content to undermine—primarily—Pakistan,” reported the EU DisinfoLab.
The network is also used to spread rhetoric against China, which India is currently in border conflicts with.
The most damning revelation of the report traces its connection to Asian News International (ANI)—one of India’s most prominent news networks, which also sometimes wires to international networks like Reuters.
Fabricated news generated through the EU Chronicles, Srivastava Group’s latest fake publication, is repackaged by ANI and fed to local audiences in India. The Twitter account of the EU Chronicles, the investigation discovered, shares only two types of content: videos of European Members of Parliament praising Narendra Modi’s government in India, and posts alleging suppression of minorities in Pakistan.
This network also utilizes the names of UN-accredited NGOs and engages in identity theft—even resurrecting a dead human rights professor—to disseminate pro-India political narratives. It does so by appropriating Pakistan’s indigenous human rights movements, such as those espousing minority rights, and spreading Indian state agendas under their banner.
While the Indian government has officially distanced itself from this disinformation network, the Pakistani state has labelled it a “vindication of Pakistan’s position.” Subsequently, Pakistan’s Foreign Office (FO) has called to the international community to hold India accountable for its actions, and urged the EU authorities to “take full cognizance of this massive disinformation campaign against Pakistan.”
“It is time that the world saw the reality of India as a state-sponsor of terrorism and a purveyor of anti-Pakistan propaganda globally,” maintains Pakistan.
The BJP connection
A study conducted by a Reddit user earlier this year revealed that up to 18,000 Indian users on Twitter were engaged in spreading misinformation and propaganda: 17,779 accounts were pro-BJP, while 147 were pro-Congress.
This is corroborated by a 2018 BBC study, which discovered: “There is an emerging fake news ecosystem on Twitter, where we find fake news sources and amplifiers on the political right to be much more densely interconnected and intermeshed.”
Supporters of India’s right-wing BJP government are known to espouse opinions against India’s minorities, notably Muslims, as well as promote hyper-nationalist anti-Pakistan content. These users were identified for having bios like “India supports CAA” and “Followed by Narendra Modi.”
The controversial Citizens’ Amendment Act (CAA) of 2019 allows Indian citizenship to refugees from Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan—as long as they are not Muslims.
Additionally, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often come under fire for indiscriminately following regular citizens on Twitter—a move uncommon for world leaders—including accounts that routinely engage in abuse, trolling, and generating disinformation.
The implicit and explicit endorsement of such online content by BJP leaders helps manifest a conducive environment for disinformation. Validation from revered political leadership is likely to encourage citizens to spread fake propaganda online in a display of nationalism.
Despite the documentation and acknowledgment of Indian misuse of social platforms, then, why is effective action not taken by social media companies?
The Big Tech bias
While the policy guidelines of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter strictly prohibit hate-speech and disinformation, the tech giants routinely face criticism for lax implementation.
In April 2019, Facebook removed altogether 712 accounts and 390 pages in India and Pakistan for “inauthentic behaviour” and spamming. It took down a total of 103 groups, pages and accounts based in Pakistan, and 687 pages and accounts based in India.
In October 2020, both Twitter and Facebook, in separate statements, announced that they took down a combined total of 3500 inauthentic accounts from both websites.
An upcoming Twitter feature, named Birdwatch, also intends to curb disinformation by allowing users to add commentary on published posts for additional context.
Despite these efforts, however, many allege that targeting disinformation in South Asia—like it has done in the West, notably during the US Elections—is neither a priority, nor profitable for these tech giants. Additionally, the social media companies have also been charged with political bias for flagging and removing pro-Kashmir posts in August 2019, when India stripped the occupied territory off its autonomous status.
As of 2020, India forms the largest worldwide userbase on Facebook, and the third-largest on Twitter. The country’s digital footprint saw a massive swell following the introduction of cheap, and initially free, data by telecommunication company Reliance Jio, which is owned by India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani. The Jio network was promoted by the BJP government when it first launched, and has witnessed exponential growth in tandem with the Modi government’s Digital India program.
In April 2020, Facebook announced it was investing $5.7 billion in India’s Jio platform, making Facebook its largest minority shareholder.
“India is a special country for us,” said Facebook. “We are excited about furthering our investment in India’s vibrant digital economy.”
In October 2020, Facebook India’s policy chief Ankhi Das resigned following allegations of partisanship, and inaction regarding hate-speech posts by BJP leader Raja Singh during the 2020 Delhi riots—which instigated mob lynching of Muslims. Earlier, a coalition of human rights groups had written an open letter to Facebook demanding Das’s resignation.
“Facebook should not be complicit in more offline violence, much less another genocide, but the pattern of inaction displayed by the company is reckless to the point of complicity,” the letter said. “[We] write to urge you to take decisive action to address Facebook India’s bias and failure to address dangerous content in India.”
WhatsApp, the chat service owned by Facebook, has also been extensively used in India to spread disinformation leading to violence, often hosting networks of “cow vigilantes” that forward information targeting Muslim minorities in India.
Twitter platform is routinely utilised by citizens and politicians alike to target opposition using propaganda. Much of the fake news generated regarding Pakistan in the incidents outlined above originated through multiple “blue tick” verified accounts; the majority of the misinforming tweets still remain on the website.
In November 2020, several suspended pro-BJP accounts reappeared on Twitter, in violation of its own policies. The return of one of these accounts, known for spreading disinformation and anti-Pakistan propaganda, was celebrated by Indian users through the hashtag “#TrueIndologyIsBack.” Those participating in this celebration included supporters and members of the BJP holding verified accounts.
The unchecked impact of such large swaths of propaganda-driven internet users was seen more recently when Twitter suspended Indian journalist Salil Tripathi’s account. The writer had been mass-reported by Hindi nationalists for a tweet against the demolition of the Babri mosque on December 6, the 28th anniversary of the incident. Consequently, Twitter was widely criticised for its “outrageous act of censorship.”
Why it matters
Sadaf Khan, co-founder of Media Matters for Democracy, who also heads its Media for Transparency project, claims that “disinformation is designed to make people believe in it.”
Speaking to The Correspondent, she outlined the material consequences of misinformation by recalling Pakistan’s polio crisis. “We are one of the two countries of the world that still have polio, and need a polio vaccination program. One reason is that the people in Pakistan believe in a lot of conspiracy theories and misinformation about vaccination,” she said.
She also acknowledged its connection to security threats, with inauthentic news leading to mass panic. Another example talked of misinformation about commodity shortage resulting in hoarding and inflation.
Addressing the role of social media companies, Khan acknowledged their complicity in disinformation-based violence, especially in the global south. Referring to social media companies’ selective flagging policies, Khan claimed even that their existing action is a result of global pressure.
“Whatever measures we are seeing are coming in response to a very direct harm that has come from misinformation,” she said.
Most instances of fake news and hate speech in the Indian subcontinent are likely to escape moderation due to the use of regional languages and localised slang.
The role of social media companies in the violence against minorities in India, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar—where Facebook withheld critical information during a United Nations investigation—has been widely documented and questioned by global audiences. Recently, Facebook’s flawed content regulation mechanisms came under scrutiny when it falsely flagged and deleted posts tagged #EndSARS—a Nigerian trend against brutality by the Nigerian Police Force—when its algorithm misidentified it as misinformation about the SARS virus.
Such instances exemplify the need for social media companies to ensure global representation within their regulatory framework. Most instances of fake news and hate speech in the Indian subcontinent are likely to escape moderation due of the use of regional languages and localized slang.
Who decides the truth?
If prominent incidents of online disinformation attest to anything, it is this: not everything on the internet is true, and not everything is entirely harmless. A landscape wrought with some facts, more opinions, and a plethora of disinformation, social media is now a minefield of voices that impact real world politics. In such circumstances, truth is not an occurrence, but a decision: some people decide what is true, while the rest are meant to comply. So, who decides this truth, and what would they have the world believe?
“I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online,” said Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg earlier this year. “Private companies probably shouldn’t be, especially these platform companies, shouldn’t be in the position of doing that.”
Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, in response, shrugged off the “arbiter of truth” label and said: “Our intention is to connect the dots of conflicting statements and show the information in dispute so people can judge for themselves. More transparency from us is critical so folks can clearly see the why behind our actions.”
Sadaf Khan, too, believes that no one should have the role. Referring to the current era as “post-truth,” she maintained that all information, whether generated through news or advertisement, carries subjectivity. “Obviously, there are some things that are just the scientific truth, for which we look at officials,” she added as disclaimer.
Instead, Khan emphasised upon the necessity of digital literary that can employ citizens with the ability to access, and then verify information.
“What we need are readers who have skills to understand how information operates—who understand information economics, the ecosystem, have critical thinking skills, are able to make judgements for themselves, are able to seek more information for whatever topic they are reading, and are able to cross-check,” she stressed.
Increasingly, the line between free speech and regulation is becoming a sketchy one, but needs to be acknowledged for all its merits. In an age where information is capable of being created, contorted and distributed within seconds, responsibility must be taken for the consequences it entails. With technology and algorithms lending to human consequences like violence and death, global authorities and ordinary citizens must alike acknowledge their roles in sustaining relative peace in the world.
The next great war will be fought on beaches and on landing grounds, but it will also be fought in our consciousness: in chaotic message boards, in seedy click farms, and on smartphone screens. The question to ask ourselves now is this: are we ready for it?