Between Aug. 5 and Sept. 5, the Indian fact-checking platform BOOM spotted 49 misleading messages about Kashmir going viral on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp – more than one piece of misinformation a day. And 15 of them were posted by accounts based in Pakistan.
Profiles and accounts responsible for those messages were not handled by ordinary users, BOOM says, but by prominent journalists, ministers and also leading political parties This gives an already conflict-laden story a political twist that could be dangerous.
About a month ago, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked Article 370 from the Indian Constitution, which had for decades maintained the state of Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy.
It is widely known that the Kashmir region has been the subject of a warlike dispute between India, Pakistan and China for years and is now considered one of the most insecure places on the planet. Internet shutdowns are common and the lack of public data makes fact-checking really hard.
Jency Jacob is BOOM’s managing editor. In this Q&A, conducted by e-mail on Monday, he explains what his team has seen so far and how misleading photos are playing a role in India right now.
What does it mean to have 15 out of 49 misleading pieces of information about Kashmir coming from Pakistan?
Just like our cultures, languages, traditions and cuisine, we are bound with our neighbors in our penchant for spreading misinformation. The recent crisis in Kashmir made it ever so pronounced. A lot of the misinformation by verified handles from Pakistan is centered around allegations about atrocities committed by the army against Kashmiris and about violent protests organized by locals. But none of them were found to be true. They circulate old videos – some of them are not even from the state (of Jammu and Kashmir).
How did Pakistanis journalists, ministers and political parties react to your fact-checks?
The cross border nature of the misinformation and its virality forces us to act in real time to prevent real-life harm. It was important for us to debunk them and put out the correct information online for the benefit of our readers.
One of the most hilarious instances we witnessed was with former High Commissioner of Pakistan to India, Abdul Basit. He shared a photo of pornstar Jonny Sins in a porn set to falsely portray Sins as a Kashmiri pellet gun victim. The absurdity of the tweet led to hilarious responses by Twitteratis and even Sins himself intervened with a tweet, directed at Basit, thanking him for new followers. Basit has already deleted his original tweet.
A lot of the tweets were deleted after the trigger happy verified handles from Pakistan realized that their gullibility was being called out through fact checks, either by social media users or fact-checkers.
Is it possible to know how many people saw/share/interacted with those 15 posts from Pakistan?
We haven’t analyzed any aggregated figures of engagement with these fake tweets and posts yet. But it has been interesting to note how several prominent handles from Pakistan were found peddling fake information. Hamid Mir, a very prominent and respected Pakistani journalist, for example, shared an old video as recent and his tweet gained over 3,500 retweets and 5,600 likes. Mir deleted his tweet after being called out on Twitter and saw quick stories by fact-checkers like us.
Do you think Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Google, etc. could somehow help to reduce misinformation regarding Kashmir?
Facebook is already working with about seven fact-checking organizations in India in several languages. While a lot more can be done, they have provided fact-checkers with an important tool to mark posts as false that in turn triggers their algorithm to reduce their distribution. Twitter does not have a similar arrangement with fact-checkers and continues to look at content on its platform based on reporting by users and their own internal signals, which are not clear to us. This is why they are often accused of being slow in responding to not just complex and nuance-based misinformation but even blatant examples of disinformation.
All of the 15 posts from Pakistan use photos or videos that are either fake or were used out of context. Is this a “new” misinformation trend in the region?
Ever since the government announced the abrogation of Article 370, social media has been rife with misinformation. In India, the narratives were based on two core assumptions — one, that everything is fine in Kashmir, and that Kashmiris have welcomed the changes; and two, that Kashmiris are being subjected to brutal atrocities, sometimes mounting to allegations of genocide. The tweets coming out of Pakistan tend more toward the latter.
In many ways, the wave of nationalism in both countries has forced social media users to take a stand supporting their respective governments. Photos and videos prove to be a very powerful medium to evoke strong emotions among their followers and target each other. This is in line with what we have been witnessing over the years where videos have a strong shelf life and make a comeback at regular intervals with new narratives.
Pakistan and India are also fighting this battle at a diplomatic level on important international forums. The open misuse of social media probably reflects how high the stakes are for Pakistan ever since the Indian government’s surprise move related to Kashmir. The two countries have been facing this dispute ever since our independence over 70 years back.
Cristina Tardáguila is the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.