Weaponising misinformation in Kashmir debate

Op-ed: A powerful misinformation campaign has always been the hallmark of the Kashmir debate, and an easy way to keep Kashmiris inextricably bound to the conflict in the region. Even a mere whisper of a small UN-sponsored project would be enough to send the newspapers in a frenzy of sensationalism, using hyperbolic phrases like “Aqwaam Mutahida ke aewaano main masala-e-Kashmir ki Baazgisth”.

Political radicalisation is not new to Jammu and Kashmir. It has a bloody history going back decades. While it had originated as an offshoot of political violence based on changes brought about by the Partition of 1947; it took on a religious character. Till as late as 2014, there were senseless killings, abductions, and hate crimes that had worn down the societal fabric of the region. All driven by fragmented groups with an extremist ideology.

The youth of Jammu and Kashmir were particularly susceptible to indoctrination because they were offered a pipe dream. They were goaded to challenge the status quo and brainwashed into extremist political ideals. In the past year, a lot of effort and focus was made to stamp out violence and this was successful to a great degree. However, the specter of another war has raised its ugly head. A battle that is not fought on the streets, but on websites and social media. This is even more insidious in its reach and its potential for collateral damage.  This ‘cyber’ dimension of violence is new and just as deadly. It’s easy to glamourise things on Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter. From there is a small step to enforcing this ideology through force. And that is exactly how our youth are being targeted – via an ideological war being fought in a new dimension with little oversight and almost complete impunity.

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This electronic campaign promotes dangerous content that is a ticking bomb, just waiting to infect the minds of youth – provoking and exhorting them to engage in violent activities and carry out violent acts in the real world. This has caused a lot of harm to Jammu and Kashmir, and our youth have been the greatest victims of this electronic attack.

Looking at the past it is not hard to understand that this struggle was in no way related to a desire for equitable political rights. Certain sections had taken undue advantage of a precarious political system and put all their might into driving a wedge between the people of Kashmir. This created an environment that was a breeding ground for violence.

The people of Kashmir now know that no political movement can succeed in achieving its objectives unless it is capable of representing the interests of all ethnic and religious groups. The only way this is possible is by employing an inclusive approach to its political character and social base. We need to work as one – civil society, media, and political and religious leaders towards the goal of protecting our youth from the disease of information war.

There have been a number of triggers in the recent past that have backed Pakistan into a corner. It had falsely speculated that nuclear equivalence was a guarantee of India’s non-retaliation to provocative terrorist attacks. The Balakot operation destroyed that assumption. Then the return of the BJP government sent out a clear message that there were at least 5 more years of India’s strong policy of militarised action on its soil. Finally the focal point of  Pakistan’s deluded nationalism – ‘Kashmir will be Pakistan’ was swiftly decimated by Article 370.

While its anti-India strategy continues, Pakistan has now shifted gears and moved the focus of its tactics – a morbid ‘digital first’ approach to violence. It promotes content that is specifically designed to attack the public perception of India, by spreading falsehoods to polarise society on a religious basis. This is done by creating a huge amount of fake profiles on major social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp Twitter, and YouTube. The posts are embellished with fake content and laced with inane facts to lend an air of credibility.

With the sheer volume of religious misinformation content, they proceed to carpet bomb Facebook groups, online forums and Twitter feeds and create a hate-based environment to try and impact India’s credentials as a secular democracy. The latest addition is the extensive use of handles and user names that are obviously identifiable as Middle Eastern. They twist and manipulate any and all news in India that they can repurpose to their benefit, whether it is a democratic protest or healthy dissent. It is all packaged into a twisted narrative designed to cause maximum damage to the social fabric of India, and suddenly we are treated to the “news” of fascist governments, disenfranchised Muslims, and Hindu supremacists. Look a little further and there is the familiar whining about Kashmir’s disputed status and the soon-to-be-announced solution by UN resolution. Human rights, Azad Kashmir, fake encounters, and imminent Muslim genocide. All this has gone to sickening lengths to further a delusional agenda. And it is no surprise that the same anecdotes are parroted on every medium and every platform. It would have been hilarious if it wasn’t so deceptive and hateful.

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So India has to keep a resolute defence and step up to battle against this new campaign. The vigil must be relentless – the damage that can be caused by these spiteful attacks can be unexpected and tactical. The greatest danger of this type of information war is its persistence and dishonesty.

Pakistan’s eagerness to capitalise on its digital media fetish doesn’t end there. While there have been disconcerting rumors about its global agenda to claim leadership of the Muslim world, there have been recent reports that lend credence to this news.

So what does the rest of the world do to mitigate this unilateral digital aggression against other nations? Based on the sheer volume and type of misinformation, there is a clear potential of this propaganda campaign causing significant harm to the peace process in multiple regions. 

There should also be a strong collaboration of Philia Forum nations and the possibilities of launching a joint investigation into the actions and effects of this propaganda army. We should consider setting up a dedicated information centre to minimize the impact of such groups that are engaged in information warfare. This is a new frontier and a new war. Along with India, there should be a call for strong media oversight across all countries to evaluate and moderate the content based on their own internal guidelines, in the best interests of their citizens. There will need to be a well-thought-out plan of action, along with effective mechanisms and tools to combat this menace. Make no mistake, the truth must be spoken. A journalist who hides or misrepresents the facts is doing a great disservice to the people and dishonouring their own profession. The days of keeping our youth in the dark and using them as cannon fodder are over. They have suffered enough already, they deserve a chance at peace and progress.

Author: Emaad Makhdoomi is a Young Political Commentator, TV Panelist, and a Writer. He is one of the leading lights in the studded youth icons of India. Emaad has represented India at various Youth Leadership forums in countries including The United States of America, Germany, New Zealand, and Dubai. Emaad Makhdoomi has also been a recipient of prestigious awards worldwide.