March was characterised by a torrent of misinformation, as military tensions between India and Pakistan rose in the early part of the month. From social media to mainstream media and messaging platforms, propaganda warfare was at its peak, seeking to sway public opinion.
Misinformation over India-Pak tension
Misinformation on social media
1. Manufactured audio clip to claim Pulwama attack an inside job
Avi Dandiya, a social media user who has a significant following on Facebook, posted an ‘audio clip’ on March 1. He claimed that the audio clip was a conversation between BJP president Amit Shah and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, and the conversation purportedly was about killing Indian soldiers. Dandiya claimed that this audio clip was evidence that the Pulwama terror attack of February was an inside job.
Alt News, however, found that the audio clip presented by Dandiya was completely bogus and manufactured by lifting different portions of old interviews given by BJP leaders. Parts of these interviews were conjoined to make it seems that Rajnath Singh and Amit Shah were discussing a ploy to kill Indian soldiers.
Dandiya had later posted another manufactured audio clip, according to which the BJP had supposedly plotted to hack EVMs.
2. Fake WhatsApp chat to claim 292 terrorists killed in Balakot air strike
A Twitter user Shekhar Chahal shared a WhatsApp chat with an alleged Pakistani, who is a resident of Balakot, to claim that the Indian air force’s recent air strike killed 292 terrorists of JeM. Chahal is followed by prime minister Narendra Modi on Twitter.
The entire conversation is fake. Firstly, Alt News found that there is no ‘Balakot Medical University’ in the first place. Moreover, the urdu used in the chat was highly erroneous. Alt News’ fact check can be read here.
3. Images of 2015 Pak heatwave viral as Balakot IAF casualties
A set of images doing rounds on social media was shared with claims that it depicts the impact of Indian Air Force’s airstrike in Pakistan. The photographs show mass graves and shrouded dead bodies. “बालाकोट हमले का सबूत सभी हरामी नेताओं को है ये ताकी तुम सभी ग़द्दार अपने मुह पर चपल मार कर चुप रहे और सेना का माजक न उड़ाऐ |जय हिंद की सेना! (This proof of Balakot attack is for the ha**** ministers so that you traitors hit your faces with slippers and keep your mouths shut instead of making fun of our forces.),” was the commonly used caption accompanying the photographs. Another caption that was used to share the images is – “यह है सबूत अच्छी तरह से चशमा लगा कर देख लिजियेगा जी। (This is the proof. See properly with spectacles on.)“
Alt News found that the photograph was clicked in Pakistan in 2015. A heatwave had claimed hundreds of lives that year. This photograph pertained to it.
Misinformation by mainstream media
4. Zee News broadcasts old, unrelated satellite images as destroyed JeM camp
“बड़ी खबर हम आपको दिखा रहे है जी हम आपको सॅटॅलाइट इमेजे देखा रहे है। बालाकोट स्ट्राइक की। यह जवाब है उन लोगो को जो सबूत मांगते है। (We bring you big news. Yes, we are showing you the satellite images of Balakot air strike. This is an answer to those who demand evidence -translated) “, said the Zee News anchor presenting the satellite images of the alleged bombsite in Jaba, Balakot.
According to the broadcast, the image on the left where the building had an intact rooftop was taken on February 23, 2018, whereas the image of same building on the right in which the rooftop was demolished was of February 26, 2018. Throughout the broadcast, it was claimed that these were the satellite images of the site bombed which now stands demolished after the air strike carried out by the Indian Air Force.
Alt News fact-checked the Zee News broadcast and found that the channel had used old, unrelated images to claim that the IAF airstrike at Balakot had destroyed the terror camp of the JeM. The article can be accessed here.
5. Amar Ujala uses image of 2014 US air strike to represent IAF’s strike target
On March 5, the Hindi publication Amar Ujala published a report titled, “बालाकोट: मदरसा छात्र ने बताया- रात को हुआ था जबरदस्त धमाका, पाकिस्तानी सेना ने हमें बचाया (Balakot: A Madrasa student told that – A tremendous explosion had happened at night, Pakistani army evacuated us -translated)”. The article also carried a photo with a target symbol on a building, while the text below the photo said, “वायुसेना का टारगेट (Air Force’s target)”.
The image attached to the Amar Ujala’s article pertains to an U.S air strike aimed at ISIS targets in September 2014. A report published by Daily Mail on October 4, 2014 stated, “The targets of the strikes were fighters from the Khorasan Group, which is how the U.S. government refers to a cell of al Qaeda veterans who had relocated to Syria from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region”.
6. Did Pak army admit 200 killed in Balakot? Indian media runs video without verification
“Pakistan admits that 200 terrorists were killed.”; “Bodies of slain terrorists were shifted after IAF airstrike.”; “IAF Balakot airstrike proof.” “US-based Gilgit activist shares video.” – were the leading headlines on March 13 across Indian mainstream media outlets.
ANI, News18, India Today, ABP News, Times Now, Dainik Bhaskar, Dainik Jagran, India TV and Zee News were among the media organisations that cited a video viral on social media and claimed that it represented the Pakistani army admitting that 200 terrorists were killed by the Indian Air Force in the February 26 airstrike.
The above-stated narrative was, however, not verified by media organisations. Most of them sourced the story to a US-based Gigit activist, Senge Hasnan Sering, who incidentally stated to ANI, “I’m not sure how authentic this video is but Pakistan is definitely hiding something very important that has happened in Balakot.”
Alt News found that the video, which was used by multiple media organisations to claim that it represented proof of militants killed in the Balakot airstrike, was old and unrelated. The fact-check can be read here.
Misinformation by Major Gaurav Arya and Major Surendra Poonia
Army veterans Major Gaurav Arya and Major Surendra Poonia, who have a large following on Twitter, posted a graphic video. Major Arya claimed that the men seen beaten in the video are Pakistani army soldiers who were flogged by Pak army personnel for supposedly deserting their post when attacked by Baloch rebels. On the other hand, Major Poonia claimed that the men who are being thrashed were Baloch rebels being persecuted by the Pakistani army.
Alt News had fact-checked the video and established that both Arya’s and Poonia’s claims are false. Arya claimed that the incident depicted in the video had occurred on February 27, whereas Alt Newsfound that the same video had existed online at least 22 days earlier i.e on February 5, when it had been uploaded on YouTube. According to Republic TV‘s report, the alleged attack by BRA fighters on Pakistan outposts happened on February 27. Thus the video that both Poonia and Arya posted cannot be representative of that attack. Moreover, Alt News had found that the video actually pertained to a torture training module of the Pakistani army.
Apart from the above instances of misinformation related to the Balakot airstrike and its aftermath, there were some other prominent instances in the month of march.
1. Child abduction rumours resurface: Provocative audio clip and 2015 image from Pakistan in circulation
Child abduction rumours were revived on WhatsApp in march. A message doing the rounds on WhatsApp groups claimed that bodies of children, who were abducted, have been recovered from inside containers, and that their internal organs were found missing. The message was shared in the form of an audio clip, and is accompanied by a photograph which shows dead bodies lined together in a grave.
Alt News found that the photograph circulated along with the narrative was actually taken in 2015 when a heatwave had hit Pakistan. Moreover, the message, which was in the form of an audio clip, has been circulating online since 2017.
2. False claim of Pakistani flags waved in Wayanad, Kerala over reports of Rahul Gandhi contesting from there
ये थी असली वजह अमेठी से भागने की तो आप देश को इस्लामिक बनाने की राह पे हैं क्योंकि हाथो तिरंगा नही कुछ और ही हैं फिर ये नकली हिन्दू का ढोंग क्यों राहुल ? जिनके दादा ही हिन्दू होने पे शर्म करते थे वो भला दिल से हिंदुत्व को स्वीकार कभी नही कर सकता हैं (This is the reason for fleeing Amethi; you are on the way to making this nation Islamic, because in your hands is not the tiranga but somethint else, then why this drama of being a fake Hindu, Rahul? He whose grandfather was ashamed of being Hindu, can never accept Hindutva in his heart- translation).
The above message has been shared in the aftermath of speculation that Congress President Rahul Gandhi may contest from Wayanad, Kerala in the upcoming Lok Sabha election. It has been shared along with a video which shows green-coloured flags bearing a crescent, waved in a street rally. The video is 24 seconds long and was shared on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.
The banner in question is NOT the national flag of Pakistan. It is the banner of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), a political party based in Kerala. There are stark differences between the IUML banner and the Pakistani flag.
3. Photoshopped picture of Priyanka Gandhi wearing a cross
जनेऊधारी दत्तात्रेय ब्राह्मण की जनेऊधारी बहन के गले मे मंगलसूत्र की जगह क्रॉस लटका हुआ है, और बोलती है मे गंगा की बेटी हूं, एक नम्बर की फर्जी चोरी करके बेल पे रहने वाली फैमिली! (Janeudhari sister of janeudhari dattatrey Brahmin sports a cross on her neck instead of mangalsutra, and she says i am the daughter of Ganga, this is a family that has looted and is out on bail- translation).
Along with this message, a photograph of Priyanka Gandhi was shared widely on social media. Ms. Gandhi is seen bearing a cross, implying that she is actually a Christian and is simply masquerading as a Hindu.
Needless to say, the image was photoshopped. Mrs. Gandhi was actually wearing a pendant which was replaced with a cross through photoshop. The two images are juxtaposed below for comparison.
4. False claim: New variety of apple ‘Modi apple’ named after Narendra Modi
मेलबॉर्न, ऑस्ट्रेलिया : नरेंन्द्र मोदी जी से प्रभावित फिलिपो ने अपने नए सेब के व्यवसाय को मोदी के नाम पर रखा। भारत के बाजारों में भी मिलेगा ये सेब। (Melbourne, Australia: Inspired by Narendra Modi ji, Philipo has named her new apple business after Modi. This apple will be available in Indian markets too- translation).
This message was shared on social media along with some photographs showing apples with the brand name ‘Modi’ on it. It was uploaded by a Facebook page Namo Again, and also by the group WE SUPPORT NARENDRA MODI, among others.
Much to the chagrin of fans of Narendra Modi, the Modi apple has not been named after India’s Prime Minister. It is in fact a variety of apple which was developed in Italy. The official name for this variety is CIVG198. Information about this brand of apple is available on the website www.modiapple.com. Alt News found that the domain was registered in the year 2007, long before Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister.
5. Vivek Agnihotri makes false claim of Nehru responsible for outcome of 1965 Indo-Pak war
“When Pakistan invaded India, one of my friend Commander-in-chief Gen Chaudhuri, asked permission of PM Nehru to counter attack as being defensive wouldn’t help. That’s a simple military strategy; if you are defensive you are already defeated. The best way is to be aggressive.” This was a tweet by filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri, which has now been deleted.
The Prime Minister of India in August-September 1965, when the Indo-Pak war broke out was Lal Bahadur Shastri. Jawaharlal Nehru was not even alive– he had died in May 1964. Alt News found that Agnihotri’s tweet thread had been quoted verbatim from the work of deceased spiritual guru Acharya Rajneesh Osho.
6. Prominent journalists fall for false claim about judge who gave Aseemanand verdict joining BJP
Several prominent journalists claimed that former Judge Ravinder Reddy, who had resigned after delivering an acquittal for Swamy Aseemanand in Mecca Masjid blast case, has joined the Bharatiya Janata Party. These included Sadanand Dhume, Nidhi Razdan, Raju Parulekar and Swati Chaturvedi. The claim was accompanied by a photo.
Alt News found that neither the claim nor the photograph is true. Last October, former judge Ravinder Reddy had joined the Telangana Jana Samiti, which was part of the opposition alliance led by the Congres party during the 2018 assembly election. “Last month, Mr Reddy had expressed keenness to join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), describing it as a “patriotic party”, and banners welcoming him into the party were put up at the state BJP headquarters here, but it did not materialise”, stated a report published by NDTV on October 14, 2018.
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