Following India’s decision to abrogate the special status of the state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), Pakistan has unleashed another round of propaganda and fake narratives to portray India’s negative image to the world and further poison the minds of local Kashmiris. While the targeted propaganda has not yet reached the Kashmir Valley due to the prolonged communications blackout; it is just a matter of time before the embargo is lifted and Pakistan’s crafty misinformation campaigns percolate down to every Kashmiri.
Spearheaded by the Directorate General of Inter Service Public Relations (DGISPR) wing of the Pakistan army, and its agents in India and elsewhere, the objective of such tainted messaging has always been to incite religious sentiments inside Kashmir and other parts of India, create a mutiny-like environment within Indian security forces, narrate the Pakistani version of Kashmir’s history of accession and project India as an oppressor of the Kashmiri society and Indian Muslims as a whole.
The Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC) has tracked
179 Internet shutdowns in the state since 2012. However, the current communications blackout also includes cable television, DTH, landlines. In other words, Kashmiris are in an information black hole. With such a blanket ban on all available communication networks, the government’s aim is clearly to stop the rumours from fomenting street violence. However, the questions are, will a communications blackout help quell opinions and contain violence? What measures are in place, if the government move backfires? The answer is not so simple.
Reports suggest that there is increased activity on social media leading to the spread of misinformation about the situation in J&K. Fact checking websites such as BOOM Live and ALT News are inundated with reports about old videos and images masquerading as portraying the current oppression by the Indian state agencies and security forces in Kashmir. This is nothing new. Since the early 1990s, Pakistan has used every opportunity to effectively carry out misinformation campaigns in the Valley. The arrival of social media platforms and internet services made the task easier, as campaigns could not only be tailored to push the anti-India narrative, but also simultaneously reach out to the entire population.
Post the encounter killing of Burhan Wani, Pakistan very shrewdly used these platforms and carefully orchestrated a game of perception management. During 2016-18, the formula was very simple. Each misdemeanour of the government authorities against a presumably innocent person was captured in a video or photo and posted on social media applications to quickly spread throughout the region. The images and videos were shared across various social media platforms. Events were flashed across Twitter handles. WhatsApp groups and YouTube videos were generated within no time. This unending onslaught of such information on social media platforms during 2016-18 inflamed the local sentiments and led to massive unrest. By constantly producing fake content and hate propaganda, Pakistan with the help from the internet and social media platforms has played the game of perception management and accentuated terror activities in the Valley.
At that time too, India responded with the easiest remedy at its disposal, i.e. by snapping the Internet. The longest period of a mobile Internet shutdown in the Kashmir valley was six months in 2016. But as soon as Internet services came back online, Kashmiris were flooded with images and videos of funerals of slain Kashmiris who were eulogised as martyrs in propaganda videos. These videos became useful recruitment tools.
Aakash Hassan, a local journalist reporting for 101reporters.com, noted
that most Internet shutdowns in Kashmir are counterproductive and instill more hatred towards the Indian establishment. “On 8 July 2016, when Burhan Wani was killed, there were many rumours about several people killed in violence against the Indian state. The communications blackout only added fuel to the fire, because people tend to think that there has been more violence and it is an extraordinary situation and that’s the reason why they’ve shut off the Internet,” Hassan said in a YouTube video discussion posted by MediaNama
Research has shown how social networking sites alter our perception of reality and time leading to additional psychological stress
. Recycled images and videos of past events will be used to reinforce resentment, intensify the stress levels and fan further anger and rage against the state. Without the means to communicate with family and friends, Kashmiris are more likely to participate in violent revolts against Indian security forces. Stanford researcher Jan Rydzak concurs in his paper
‘Of Blackouts and Bandhs: The Strategy and Structure of Disconnected Protest in India’. In a communications blackout, Rydzak notes, participants are more likely to be compelled to take up collective action in India and substitute non-violent tactics for violent ones.
Ideally, therefore, instead of an all-out clampdown on all the means of communication, the government should be looking at building and promoting counter narratives and use various communication channels to quell feelings of unrest in the Valley. The Prime Minister has reached out to the youth in Kashmir with a promise of a better future, but the prolonged tactic adopted to quell the perceived resistance and violence, far from instilling a feeling of inclusiveness and confidence, may lead to their further alienation. While the situation as well as the context may be different, it may be prudent to adopt a more proactive and inclusive stance. For example, in 2016, when Karnataka saw violent protests over sharing of Cauvery river water with Tamil Nadu, Bangalore police’s social media team was instrumental
in restoring calm by making regular announcements, countering rumours and answering queries.
For now, if the government is looking at the immediate need to stop rumours and hate propaganda from spreading on a particular platform, it may be a better option to consider application-level blocking of websites or apps while keeping the rest of the Internet services working. Simultaneously, it must proactively promote counter narratives through other communication channels. If the medium is the message, as coined by Marshall McLuhan, India’s method of dealing with the perceived fear of extreme violence in Kashmir post the decision on Article 370 may have temporarily killed the medium, but the message remains unaddressed. Shutting off social networking applications and communication networks, at best, will delay the expression of dissent. One can only hope that it is not a violent expression of dissent.
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