Indian Disinformation Operations against Pakistan and its Implications

The annual brief of the United States Department of Defense in 2019 described disinformation as “an incisive instrument of state policy”. While considering increased weaponisation of information, for the sake of achieving social, political and economic objectives, the European Union (EU) also defined disinformation as “verifiably false or misleading information which is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or for intentionally deceiving the public.” The terminology “disinformation” was only introduced into standard dictionaries in the late 1980s. However, the philosophy or phenomenon is as old as time that was significantly evident during World Wars and later during the Cold War as an intrinsic part of propaganda campaigns. Learned from the manuals of the Russian KGB, several states around the world have started employing modern disinformation techniques to seek desirable domestic and foreign policy objectives. Towering the lengthy list is India, in South Asia, which has effectively used a network of fake news media outlets and fabricated non-governmental organisations to advance a vicious narrative to discredit Pakistan and curb its aspirations for diplomatic power projections.

An EU-based, Non-Governmental Organization “DisInfo Lab” unveiled a matrix of Indian disinformation campaign, in 2019 and 2020 respectively, that was largely contingent upon fake news outlets operating in social and mainstream media, which lobbied international and civil society against Pakistan. At the helm of this misleading propaganda were India’s wire service company Asian News International (ANI) and Delhi-based Shrivastava group, which was critical in piloting 256 anti-Pakistan websites spreading false information across 65 countries since 2005. Reportedly, social organisations and humanitarian groups associated with the United Nations (UN) and the EU were also an integral part of the overall syndicate. Almost 10 UNHRC affiliated NGOs were recorded for promoting anti-Pakistan propaganda. At one point during the campaign,  deceased Harvard professor of International Humanitarian Law, Dr Louis B Sohn, was also resurrected and appeared to attend humanitarian conferences regarding Baloch separatist activism, almost as late as in 2011.

An EU-based, Non-Governmental Organization “DisInfo Lab” unveiled a matrix of Indian disinformation campaign, in 2019 and 2020 respectively, that was largely contingent upon fake news outlets operating in social and mainstream media, which lobbied international and civil society against Pakistan.

Lasting for more than a decade, this cyber disinformation campaign was ostensibly instrumental in categorising Pakistan in the grey list of FATF burdened with hefty charges of financing violent extremism. Since then, Pakistan has struggled to find its way out and counter the blend of false and damaging narratives that have been attached to its reputation. The current government of Pakistan has released an elaborative dossier to outline Indian politics of deception and falsehood for the international community. Yet, no substantial effort or action has been undertaken by the United Nations Security Council and its influential P5 member states to cater to or counter the emerging menace. Investigating the disinformation campaign against Pakistan and revising their position upon subject matter has also considerably remained, unaddressed.

Indian disinformation operations via cyber-meddling did not stop after EU Disinfo Lab’s groundbreaking revelations and comprehensive evidence. In fact, New Delhi began to manifest and display them rather exponentially. For instance, during Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan’s protests in Lahore, in April 2021, propaganda hashtags like #CivilWarinPak and other controversial Twitter trends started to capture attention. For days and several hours, such trends remained as few top regional trends and painted a desperate picture of political turmoil inside Pakistan. After the fog of affairs had settled and troublesome trends were analysed, it was disclosed that 61% of the total hashtags tweeted were originating from India. Several Indian based, fake Twitter accounts engaged in Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior (CIB) produced 84,000 tweets, retweets and replies using this particular hashtag. Moreover, seven out of ten cities where this hashtag was trending were also Indian cities such as – New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Lucknow, Pune and Jaipur.

All these endeavours, however unsuccessful, reflected enormous lengths that India went to portray a negative image of Pakistan and incite sectarian violence in an already sensitive equation that Pakistan was then dealing with. Religious, ethnic, sectarian and political fault lines in the South Asian region can disturb the equilibrium of traditional and symmetric power in the blink of an eye. Romanticising asymmetrical means of operations like disinformation campaigns in order to test Pakistan’s nerves can throw an entire continent inhabited by billions into a state of existential disruption. One wrong move or misadventure can potentially shove aside the established principle of deterrence from the table. How is India comfortable with such high stakes is a mystery yet unresolved.

More recently, Indian Twitter again came up with another pandora box of an amalgamated disinformation campaign during the fall of Panjshir on September 6, 2021. Despite being fully aware of the sensitivity of events unfolding in Afghanistan and their domestic implications for Afghans and regional implications for the South Asian region, Indian mainstream and social media irresponsibly employed desperate tactics. India’s most viewed prime time news network, Republic TV, aired a snippet from the video game “Arma-3”, claiming it to be exclusive evidence of the Pakistan Air Force’s involvement during the Panjshir offence. Not only that, but a retired Indian army officer went a step ahead and shared a picture of Pakistani celebrities posing in military attire, for a movie sequence, as “truth about Pakistan army’s presence in Panjshir”.

Such incidents have become a routine in Indian media under premier Modi’s regime. Driven by his ambition to malign and diplomatically isolate Pakistan through any means necessary, they’ve started to compromise their own intellectual credibility and journalistic ideals. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s greatest concern is precarious but practical security consequences; that can mushroom from seemingly harmless and virtual campaigns. Although Pakistan is already dealing with subtle implications with respect to its standing in FATF and international community, it’s only a matter of time that the price of such adventures will exceed beyond collateral.

Mahnoor Saleem

Mahnoor Saleem is currently pursuing International Relations at the National Defence University, Islamabad. Her areas of interest include theories of international relations, psychological operations and information warfare.

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