After Pulwama terror attack, WhatsApp groups are fuelling hypernationalism, hatred and warmongering
By Kunal Purohit
Published: 7:52pm, 16 February, 2019
Memes demanding Kashmiri protesters who pelt stones must be shot dead and “Uri 2” should be conducted.
India has already witnessed the tragic consequences of disinformation
The repercussions of such disinformation will only become clearer in days to come
While morphed photos of Congress president Rahul Gandhi standing alongside Pulwama suicide bomber Adil Ahmed Dar were called out for being fake, this might just be the tip of the disinformation iceberg.
An investigation reveals that political WhatsApp groups, run by sympathisers and workers of political parties, saw a flood of disinformation within hours of the attack. From systematic warmongering through similar messages in multiple groups calling for nuclear strikes to circulating fake videos of Congress workers chanting ‘Pakistan zindabad’, WhatsApp groups are abuzz with hypernationalistic text, videos, photos and memes. All this content largely revolves around similar themes: while many blamed “Pakistan-sympathisers” in India, others invoked the “tukde tukde gang” and the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students.
Amidst all this, one crucial message constantly made the rounds: a ‘request’ to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to go to war with Pakistan as fitting retribution for the Pulwama attack. This message was spotted in various groups. The ‘request’ ends with an assurance to Modi that the country would reward him for the war by giving him 400 seats in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
The message 'requesting' Prime Minister Narendra Modi to go to war with Pakistan. Image courtesy: Kunal Purohit
This investigation accessed several WhatsApp groups, named after both the BJP and the Congress, in order to understand the content shared. The names of these groups are not being made public to secure the identity of the sources who gave us access to these closed groups.
There was a significant chunk of messages being shared by users in all seven groups, demanding war against Pakistan as the only befitting response. There were certain messages which were common in all groups, many of them asking for “400 Pakistani heads for the 40 killed” in Pulwama. One message, asking Modi to go ahead with the war, asking him to repeat “Gujarat” in Pakistan.
The message demanding “400 Pakistani heads for the 40 killed” in Pulwama. Image courtesy: Kunal Purohit
The message asking Narendra Modi to repeat “Gujarat” in Pakistan. Image courtesy: Kunal Purohit
These messages appeared in multiple groups, indicating the possibility that they were being aggressively shared by many.
Disinformation as a response to the terror attack
What is striking is that most of this content, especially the doctored videos and the misleading memes, were created within hours of the Pulwama attack.
For instance, on one of these groups, named after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), at 10.24 pm, close to seven hours after the Pulwama attack, a user posted a screenshot purportedly of a WhatsApp group named ‘Kashmir Live News’, celebrating the attack. The source of the screenshot was not shared. Instantly, other users started sharing communally-charged posts.
Memes demanding that Kashmiri protesters who pelt stones must be shot dead and “Uri 2” should be conducted are circulating.
The message demanding that “Uri 2” should be conducted. Image courtesy: Kunal Purohit
Close to midnight, messages emerged blaming the Congress for the attack. This, clearly, was only the beginning.
By the morning, the machinery was in full swing. Early morning, videos started doing the rounds showing a Congress leader from Jammu and Kashmir, Sagheer Saeed Khan, saying that the family members of those falsely killed in the state will get Rs 1 crore each if the party comes to power. While Khan indeed made the statement, he did so nearly two months ago. However, the video was packaged as a statement made in response to the Pulwama attack, accusing the Congress of being 'sympathetic to terrorists'.
Soon after came another set of videos showing Congress workers being lathi-charged by police officials. The text accompanying these videos alleged that these Congress workers were caught chanting ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ by the police and were thrashed for their crime. A day before the Pulwama attack, Boom Live called out these videos as fake. It found that the videos were from Chhattisgarh last year where Congress workers, protesting against the then BJP government, were lathi-charged by the police. But after the Pulwama attack, these videos seem to have reemerged and were shared in multiple groups by different users.
There were even website links being shared showing a right-wing social media activist ‘exposing the role of the Congress in orchestrating the Pulwama attack’.
A WhatsApp message claiming that a right-wing social media activist had ‘exposed the role of the Congress in orchestrating the Pulwama attack'. Image courtesy: Kunal Purohit
There were multiple memes being circulated targeting various leaders of the Congress, including the party president for ostensibly checking his phone, at a function to pay the final respects to the CRPF soldiers killed in the Pulwama attack. Similarly, there were attacks on Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu, with memes being created of his photos with Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan and the army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa.
Memes were created of Navjot Singh Sidhu with with the Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan. Image courtesy: Kunal Purohit
A meme was circulated of Congress chief Rahul Gandhit ostensibly checking his phone at a function to pay the final respects to the CRPF soldiers. Image courtesy: Kunal Purohit
Almost all this rhetoric veered towards a sense of hypernationalism, there was also a strand of content blaming the people of Jammu and Kashmir for the attack and proposed a ‘boycott’ of the state. Messages called for tourists to impose a self-ban on visiting the state for the next five years and to boycot the Amarnath Yatra as a form of retribution against the people in the state for their ‘support’ to terrorist activities.
This message blamed the people of Jammu and Kashmir for the attack and proposed a ‘boycott’ of Kashmir. Image courtesy: Kunal Purohit
Why this is dangerous
Even as Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley asked his party’s spokespersons to not indulge in “war-mongering” and the Opposition parties announcing their support to the government, the opaque world of political campaigning on WhatsApp stands in stark contrast.
Last year, a BBC study pointed out how such nationalism was a major driving force behind people’s sharing of disinformation on social media platforms. Facts, the study said, were less important than the overwhelming “emotional desire to bolster national identity.” This conclusion ties in with the content this investigation accessed on at least seven different WhatsApp groups, with users posting similar messages across various groups.
India has already witnessed the tragic consequences of disinformation spreading through closed social media platforms like WhatsApp, with the deaths of over 30 people after being publicly lynched by people who believed the rumours that reached them on the app. Last year, the company said it had over 200 million users in India. This figure is bound to have gone up. In July, a Lokniti-Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) study found WhatsApp usage rapidly increasing, especially in rural communities.
The repercussions of such disinformation in sensitive times like these will only be clearer in the days to come.