Information technologies are emerging as powerful instruments in unconventional warfare. Social media platforms are often weaponized by states to project themselves as responsible, while discrediting their opponents as belligerent via disinformation and propaganda to mold public opinion in their interest.
The Indian government, for instance, offers social media platforms a large market which it has used as leverage to regulate the content on these platforms as a form of censorship. Not only that but branches of the Indian military have also been involved in propagating disinformation campaigns that are dangerous for Kashmiri journalists. Silencing journalists through social media platforms is just one of many strategies that the Indian government and military have adopted alongside blocking news channels, charging reporters with terrorism, and raiding their homes and offices. All of these activities create an atmosphere of fear for those engaging in nonpartisan reporting
On September 26, 2023, the Washington Post published an investigative report titled, ‘Under India’s pressure, Facebook let propaganda and hate speech thrive.’ The report exposed fake social media accounts run by the Indian Army’s Chinar Corps, stationed in Jammu and Kashmir. These accounts were used by the Indian military to praise its own activities in Indian held Kashmir while accusing Kashmiri journalists of promoting dissent and separatism. The activities of the army including the dissemination of disinformation, posed a significant threat to journalists working in the Kashmir region.
The unveiling of Chinar Corp’s controversy substantiates the EU Disinfo Lab report, “Indian Chronicles”. A result of 15 years of work, this report revealed India’s involvement in over 750 counterfeit media outlets spanning 119 countries, cases of identity theft, the manipulation of more than 10 UN Human Rights Council accredited Non-Governmental Organizations, and the registration of more than 550 fraudulent websites. The primary objective of these efforts was to bolster India’s global influence and reputation while simultaneously creating feelings of animosity against China and Pakistan.
The Chinar Corps controversy highlights India’s attempts to construct a facade of normalcy in Kashmir through fake social media accounts and crack down on freedom of expression. This repression specifically targets Kashmiri journalists, deploying smear campaigns and framing critical reporting as an act of treason. Furthermore, the personal information of independent journalists was disseminated via anonymous Twitter accounts, such as “Traitors of Kashmir” and “Kashmir Traitors.” Instead to cast positive image of the Indian administration of Jammu and Kashmir, after the revocation of article 370, for international audiences, fake accounts of journalists surfaced on social media outlets hailing development in Kashmir. Among these journalists, was Jibran Nazir whose fake account appraises the Indian government’s abrogation of Article 370 linking it to the development in Kashmir with hashtags such as New Kashmir or Naya Kashmir.
Facebook’s Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior (CIB) unit was responsible for exposing networks using fake and duplicate accounts. The CIB unit in India failed to address the issue as the ruling BJP seeks to maintain a presence of like-minded individuals within tech companies that wield considerable influence over public opinion. When the U.S.-based supervisor of the CIB unit of Facebook expressed its intent to delete these network accounts, executives in the New Delhi office resisted while citing concerns about antagonizing the Indian government. Their apprehensions were about the possibility to be imprisoned for treason. This prolonged delay spanned over three years, endangering the safety of Kashmiri journalists. The propaganda by ruling government in India via disinformation campaign worked effectively until the removal of fake Facebook accounts urged by the company’s CIB team in the United States.
Due to declining democratic values, India is characterized as “one of the worst autocratizers in last 10 years” by the V-Dem report 2023. Press freedom is among the basic pillars of democracy and the crackdown on journalists in India has resulted in the country falling from 150 to 161 out of 180 countries in this year’s Press Freedom Index. Reporters Without Borders has also expressed concerns about the systematic use of fake content by political actors for extensive propaganda and disinformation campaigns.
The ruling government in India is exploiting social media platforms to achieve its nefarious political objectives, specifically the propagation of hate against minorities. The Wall Street Journal report published on August 14, 2020, confirms that Facebook was hosting content by members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) aimed at promoting hate speech against Muslims.
The Indian government is also taking the personal data of the users from social media platforms to shut down dissent. In this regard, the Jammu and Kashmir Police reportedly collaborates with major social media platforms, including WhatsApp, X (formerly Twitter), Instagram, Snapchat, Telegram, and TikTok, to track individuals whose content appears to be critical of India on these respective platforms. In the first half of 2022, the government of India requested user data 55,497 times and 66.59 percent of these requests were pursued by Meta. Data sharing in this manner not only infringes on freedom of expression but also egregiously violates the security policies of social media platforms, which ensure that data is secure and will not be shared with any third party.
The Washington Post’s report also highlights the controversy surrounding the ‘Human Rights Impact Assessment’ (HRIA) report on addressing hate content in India. While Meta published HRIA reports for Myanmar and other Asian countries, it was compelled not to share the full findings and analysis of the report for India. Instead, only a four-page summary was provided, apparently intended to obscure concerns raised by the Foley Hoag law firm.
The effective use of media has been playing a substantial role in the pursuance of national interests of the nation states. It becomes empirically evident that all fronts of media play critical role in influencing the minds of people and shutting down the dissent. The intensified scrutiny and suppression of journalists inevitably exacerbate the constriction of avenues through which information can be disseminated to the global community.
In an interview with a US-based YouTube channel, Jack Dorsey the former CEO of Twitter highlighted the threats that the platform received from India during the Farmers’ Protests. The government asked Twitter to remove over 1000 accounts critical of the government’s actions. To compel Twitter to remove the account, members of the BJP threatened to ‘shut Twitter down in India.’
Under the pressure of Authoritarian regimes, social media giants unable to comply with its policies while contributing towards shutting down the dissent. Consequently lose its credibility as a reliable source of information. The pursuit of economic interests in India by social media apps over its own crafted values will benefit these apps for short term. However, in long run, these apps will not be enjoying the same social media followers. This episode highlights the imperative for information dissemination channels to uphold their principles steadfastly in the fight against disinformation, preventing the exploitation of these channels for nefarious state-centric agendas. Only then, the social media will be able to maintain its status as a reliable communication source.
About the authors:
- Syeda Tahreem Bukhari is a Research Officer at the Centre for International Strategic Studies-AJK. A NESA Alumni and an MPhil Scholar in Peace and Conflict Studies from National Defence University, Islamabad.
- Abdul Basit is an Associate Research Officer at Strategic Stability Desk, Center for International Strategic Studies, AJK. A NESA Alumnus and a graduate student of International Relations from National Defence University, Islamabad.