Information warfare is an ever-changing and, at present, an undefined field that is attracting increasing attention from the defense industry and policymakers. The reason for both the fascination and lack of clarity in this field is due to the so-called "information revolution" triggered by the rapid development of microcomputers, cyberspace, and related information technologies.
Cyberspace can be used as a force multiplier for information warfare activities and social media is a powerful tool for communicating a narrative and generating confusion within a target audience. The explosion of online social networks has revolutionized the distribution and consumption of information which is creating a new media hierarchy. Consequently, the environment is primed for exploitation by malicious actors.
Unfortunately, three of the most powerful emotions – fear, uncertainty and anger – are the factors that increase the likelihood of a message going viral. Even if the disinformation is first seen on sites that aren't a part of mainstream media, a mass coordinated action on different digital platforms can help ensure greater audience penetration. Bot networks that are comprised of fake profiles increase the impact of a message and create an appearance of increased engagement and popularity across many platforms simultaneously.
The modern form of disinformation is different from propaganda. It is not founded on an ideology or factual information. The purpose of modern digital disinformation is not to convince the public by delivering a single message. Instead, it is designed to confuse people by presenting various messages. It could be nearly everything, and that is why it is so much more dangerous than propaganda.
Nowadays, states and non-state actors can spread false information quickly with a potential for serious consequences. According to the research by Robinson Meyer,1 on average, a fake story is read by 1500 people, which is six times faster than a true report. This is the case with fake stories on any subject, however, stories about politics are most likely to go viral.
A number of states are in pursuit of their geopolitical goals using internet and social media networks to disseminate narratives, distortions, and lies to influence opinions of the general public and undermine confidence on the facts. Pakistan is continuously targeted by Indian disinformation. Disinformation used by India as a means of spreading propaganda against Pakistan is well documented and there is strong evidence of coordinated attacks by Indian troll armies on almost all digital platforms in the past.
India has a significant and influential segment of people who are strongly nationalist and this has led to the rise of propaganda-driven trolls. The ruling political party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is known for using exclusive troll disinformation to suppress and control the actions of any opponent both within and outside the country. The recent findings of Facebook documents revealed the shocking situation even within India – the company’s biggest market. It shows a struggle with misinformation, hate speech and celebrations of violence in the country. On February 4, 2019, a Facebook researcher created a new user account to find out how it felt to use the social media platform as a resident of Kerala, India. In the coming three weeks, the account was operated according to a single rule: follow all suggestions made by Facebook's algorithm. The result was an overflow of hate-filled posts, false information as well as celebrations for violence.
Another example is when Indian propaganda, both private and state-sponsored, attacked British politician Jeremy Corbyn, who served as leader of the Labour Party and Opposition from 2015 to 2020 after he criticized Indian handling of Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir in 2019. He tweeted on August 11, 2019 that “The situation in Kashmir is deeply disturbing. Human rights abuses taking place are unacceptable. The rights of the Kashmiri people must be respected and UN resolutions implemented”.2 The trolling from several Indian accounts involved a carefully orchestrated pattern of rebuke peculiar to the nature of the troll industry.
The last couple of years have shown an increase in the Indian disinformation campaigns, particularly against Pakistan, and there are a number of prominent examples available to be discussed here. After a preliminary investigation report released in 2019 by the EU DisinfoLab, another follow-up report titled, Indian Chronicles, uncovered a massive operation targeting international institutions and serving Indian interests in December 2020. The network of fake news websites was used to target policymakers in the United States and European Union to act against Pakistan. The aim of those websites is to spread propaganda and influence the public perception of Pakistan. The report describes the disinformation campaign launched from India as a "15 years’ huge operation running since 2005, targeting international institutions and serving Indian interest using resurrected media, dead think tanks and NGOs. Even dead people were resurrected.” This report also revealed that 750+ fake media outlets and 550+ domains were found covering 119 countries.3
There is a very strong evidence of coordinated digital attacks against Pakistan by India’s troll armies. Previously, Indian Twitter accounts circulated claims in October 2020 that there was a civil war taking place in Karachi (Pakistan). Multiple Indian news websites also reported the story, despite the fact that there was no truth to this claim. The hashtag #CivilWarInPakistan was used by Indian trolls and promoted fake news, which was widely circulated on Indian websites and social media. Major media outlets in India, including Zee News, CNN18, and India Today, picked unverified tweets and videos. However, the credibility of Indian media was seriously damaged when BBC reported that the videos and reports used by Indian media about the civil war in Pakistan were fake.4
Similarly, the same hashtag was again used by Indian trolls during a protest by a Pakistani religious political party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), who were demanding the end of diplomatic relations with France due to an incident of blasphemy in France. Once again, many prominent Indian personalities and trolls posted fake, doctored images and videos of mob violence within Pakistan. They also shared doctored videos of soldiers from Pakistan claiming to join the violent protestors. This was a clear interference by India into Pakistan's internal security affairs. The hashtag analysis revealed that almost 61% of the tweets were originating from India on this hashtag and New Delhi contributed the highest number of tweets by generating 10% of the total volume of tweets.5
Recently, it has been observed that the Taliban's quick rise to the top in Afghanistan and the weak resistance they faced in Panjshir Valley resulted in disinformation, particularly against Pakistan. Indian media had tried their level best to propagate unverified claims about the involvement of Pakistan Army in Panjshir, Afghanistan. Indian trolls shared a photo of an exploded F-16 aircraft and claimed it was a PAF jet that was shot down in the Panjshir Valley by the anti-Taliban forces. However, it was later found out that the photo was of a U.S. aircraft taken in 2018. Later, a French television channel exposed Indian media's false information about Pakistani Air Force (PAF) conducting an offensive in Afghanistan's Panjshir region.
A recent trend on Twitter, #SanctionPakistan, has been proven to be fake according to Twitter’s terms and conditions where more than 480,000 tweets were present on August 11, 2021. As per the analysis, about 53 thousand Twitter accounts participated in the trend out of which approximately 13 thousand accounts were created within 5 days after the trend started and 25 thousand of those accounts were created within a month prior to the hashtag started to trend and a majority of the tweets with this hashtag were posted from these accounts. #SanctionPakistan is a disinformation campaign and propagated mainly by Indian netizens along with Afghan and Pakistani anti-government/state user accounts using an inorganic network. Social media accounts operating from India and Afghanistan were active to blame Pakistan for Afghanistan's failures.
It was also an ignominious experience for a retired Indian General Bakshi to discover that the images that he had presented as a proof of Pakistan Army's role in Afghanistan were actually those that were taken by Pakistani actors from the film Yalghaar. The same was true regarding an Indian anchor, Arnab Goswami’s comments on the presence of ISI officers on the fifth floor of Serena Hotel situated in Kabul was a source of ridicule with an abundance of tweets in response revealing the fact that Serena Hotel in Afghanistan only has two floors.
The use of deception in Indian media outlets is a long-standing strategy used to try to "Balkanise" Pakistan. Recently, Indian investment in Afghanistan before the Taliban took over were similar to their assistance for the Bengalis in former East Pakistan. In the last couple of years, evidence has emerged linking coordinated efforts of state-sponsored actors to influence public opinion typically during any major political events via trolls. The increased frequency and intensity of cyber-enabled information operations directed at Pakistan calls for a deeper examination of theories and strategies to protect against, restrain and minimize the impact of influence and manipulation psychologically.
The writer is a PhD scholar in Media Sciences.
E-mail: [email protected]
1. Robinson Meyer, The Grim Conclusions of the Largest-Ever Study of Fake News, The Atlantic, March 08, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/03/largest-study-ever-fake-news-mit-twitter/555104/.
3. Machado, Gary, Alexandre Alaphilippe, and Roman Adamczyk. Indian Chronicles: Deep Dive into a 15-Year Operation Targeting the EU and UN to Serve Indian Interests. EU DisinfoLab. EU DisinfoLab, December 9, 2020. https://www.disinfo.eu/publications/indian-chronicles-deep-dive-into-a-15-year-operation-targeting-the-eu-and-un-to-serve-indian-interests/.
5. Baig, Asad. Misinformation Warfare - #CivilWarinPakistan Trends with 61% Tweets Coming from India; New Delhi Contributes the Highest Number. Digital Rights Monitor, April 18, 2021.
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